It’s impossible to disappear

In conversation with Lawrence Osborne by Valentina Pigmei

When I decided to have this conversation with Lawrence Osborne, perhaps one of the greatest living travel writers and one of the best contemporary British novelists, I had what I will call an episode of selective amnesia. When reading Osborne’s books, I’d never linked his name to the person I met through a common friend years ago at a memorable dinner in Rome. I clearly remembered the restaurant, the delicious Tuscan wine (gifted to Osborne, who is also a cultured wine writer), even what we talked about almost 20 years before, but I’d never joined the dots between the person and the writer of masterpieces such as Bangkok Days or The Naked Tourist, as well as captivating and sophisticated novels such as The Forgiven (recently made into a motion picture by John Michael McDonagh featuring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain). 

The point is that reading Lawrence Osborne is like setting off for an exotic destination, in the best meaning of the word. Such is his sense of place, his almost magical skills in describing settings, his incomparable ability to bring to life landscapes, sunsets, deserts, parties, bars, restaurants and even hospitals, that every time the magnetic charm of his writing inevitably makes you forget all the rest. And so the Greek island, the hotel in Macao, the villa in the Moroccan desert and the Thai hospital become, as Christopher Bollen says, “rare and ferocious marvels”. 

Will this be why, I tell myself with embarrassing self-indulgence, I forgot about the dinner at Trattoria Monti? The fact remains that Osborne is one of the few contemporary writers who really are interested in the geography of places: as he said, “I think character grows out of place, not the other way around”. 

VP: Why does nobody care about geography? 

LO: Good question. People are just middlebrow idiots, basically. Most of our literature is just empty on this level. I can’t understand it. Novels are not stage plays with cardboard “scenery”. Because the world isn’t that like.

“I always set my novels in places where I’ve lived,” you said. Will you ever write a novel set in Panzano, in Tuscany? 

I should. Every time I go there I’m filled with such melancholic nostalgia – it’s unbearable almost. It was the first place where I became a writer, where I tried to write a real book, alone in the woods. So in my own life, Panzano is a sacred place. That place where you’re 24 years old, alone with your first struggle. Well, alone with the ghosts of the Etruscans.

Does it still make sense to speak of “adventure” these days? Are there still places where there is no “monoculture of tourism” as you put it? 

I can only think of Papua New Guinea or some parts of Indonesia. However, with Covid much of the tourism monoculture has receded to a remarkable degree. Wildlife is returning even – and the hordes of overweight Europeans have diminished. So there is hope. If only it could become permanent. I’m in Phuket now, of all places, and it’s quite…empty!

We all have our own Papua New Guinea, a place we inexplicably miss a lot, where we’ve never felt as if we were “abroad”, that’s stayed in our heart. For me it’s the San Blas islands in Panama. Is there another place in this planet which has “an irrepressible attraction” for you?

I’ve never been to San Blas, but I know Nicaragua and have spent a lot of time on the Miskito Coast around Bluefields. It has a beautiful, but melancholy, end-of-the-road atmosphere. 
Otherwise what I like doing at the moment is driving across Hokkaido, in Japan. It’s strange enough for me and I’ve never tired of it. I’m attracted to the magnificent snow falls in northern Japan, which remind me in some unrealistic way of my childhood in England.

In the past, the last frontier for many writers was the Ocean, the “Heart of Darkness” of travelling. Have you ever been attracted by sailing?

I can’t live far from an ocean; I can’t dive or scuba any more in an ocean. There’s nothing more terrifying than the ocean. But without it, one feels like one is nothing.

Once you described the skyscrapers in Hong Kong as “the crystal profile of capitalism that fills us with consolation and terror”. Is living in Bangkok a way of being apart from Western culture?

Apart but also alongside and within. The great capitalist cities are all the same culture now in many ways. It’s just that in Asia those cities have taken on a new, more aggressive form. They are the real frontier of the world system.

You’re quite fascinated by the way in which oriental people live sex, transgenderism and sex work. While some feminists in Europe still think prostitution is a crime to abolish, in the East they’re more accepted phenomena. What do you think? 

I don’t really have much to say about it, honestly. Westerners are always talking about sex, and yet they never really seem to have any. 
Maybe Asians are the same, I can’t say. Obviously, they don’t have a monotheistic framework and I think ultimately that’s the difference. Liberalism, leftism, progressive ideology, are all forms of Christianity, as Nietzsche pointed out so long ago. They always will be. And so these issues will always be the subject of endless turmoil and useless agonizing. It’s maybe facetious to claim things are “better” somewhere else. 
They can be less tiresome, however. And Western sexual mores are certainly immensely tiresome these days. We can be reassured, however, by the simple realization that the rest of the world could not care less.

Is it correct to say that you choose to live in Thailand also because of the sort of serene and playful way in which eroticism is lived in the local culture, plus the Buddhism as a doctrine that “banished the drama of love”? 

Well in some ways – but the main reason was because I could afford a splendid apartment.

What did you do during the lockdown? 

I was in Bangkok and at sundry beaches in Thailand, so it was monotonous but hardly that stressful. I live quite monastically anyway, so it was rather similar to my normal life! In fact, it created solitude and quiet of a very new kind and I must confess that I perversely enjoyed it. Perhaps it’ll get worse next year [he laughs].

In her book Flights, Olga Tokarczuk writes: “Every time I’ve left I disappear from the maps”. Is it something you feel too? 

The problem is that the map doesn’t leave you. Nor does the Internet. It’s impossible to disappear unless you want to go criminal or fugitive. Admittedly, it’s an attractive idea.

In The Naked Tourist you wrote: “Tourism is a way of pretending that death will not prevail”. What do you mean? 

I wrote a book to explain that. Vacations serve to postpone our sense of fate… there’s always something to look forward to that isn’t death. It’s an amusing concept and it works.

In my opinion as a novelist you’re matchless in inventing hateful, disgusting characters. Like the couple in The Forgiven, they’re really unbearable. Who knows what they’ll be like on the big screen? Where did you learn it from? 

Hey, Valentina, I’m English, remember? All one has to do is look around. You’ll be pleased to learn that the movie of The Forgiven is even more misanthropic. 

You’ve masterfully included the topic of the migrant crisis in some of your novels, making your thrillers somehow political or perhaps moral. What do you think about immigration and the Western way of welcoming people?

That’s a very big question which is hard to answer in a few lines. I live in Asia where immigrants aren’t welcomed at all, ever, so I have a different perspective on the whole thing. But what is sustainable and what is not? No one has thought through the issues. The politicians and journalists haven’t – they can’t even imagine what the long-term consequences are, one way or another. It can’t be made into a sentimental issue, and nor into a fascist one. It’s an issue that requires a cold mind and a less cold heart.