Illumination from the dark

Thomas H Cook
Opinion - Books Friday, 07 April 2017

Thomas H Cook on why he has written his first non-fiction book, about the significance of dark places in his life

When I mentioned to friends that I was doing a travel book on the value of going to "dark places", they were somewhat wary of the idea. Wouldn't such a book be very depressing, both to write and to read?

My answer was that, in reality, visiting dark places is not a dark experience. More often, it is an illuminating one.

In fact, if dark places have a magical element, it resides in the way they can turn a historical event into a deeply personal one. At the Alcazar, in Toledo, Spain, for example, I was reminded very powerfully of my own childhood. A father/son tragedy had occurred there during the Spanish Civil War. Thinking of that tragedy, standing in the very place where it had happened, returned me to my father, so that I suddenly realized that he had been my first guide into the darkness, a call he had passed on to me.

Nor do dark places necessarily make the traveller more pessimistic. In Granada, I remember standing before a display of "torture tools" that had been used during the Inquisition. These were gruesome implements, and yet what came to mind at that moment was the fact that in Europe and the Western Hemisphere, along with most of Asia, such horrifying tools were no longer wielded in the service of religious oppression. Evil had by no means been extinguished for the world, but a certain kind of evil no longer held sway over large portions of the earth. Human advancement was uneven, and subject to reversal, but there was no doubt that in certain places, during certain times, humanity has, indeed, advanced.

Over the period of a lifetime, I have drawn similar lessons from the dark. My way to Auschwitz was paved by an unexpected act of kindness. On the road to Hiroshima, a butterfly suggested the true meaning of peace.

Dark places vary not only in the past reality they reveal, but how that reality is made manifest in the present. Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin demonstrated how suffering can best be memorialised by way of stories. At Pho Quoc, in Vietnam, the use of paper-maché figures crouched in tiger cages proved completely ineffective, with visitors posing next to them, joking about them, even putting cigarettes in their mouths. In fact, sometimes emptiness, and a complete lack of commentary, is best, a truth I discovered among the ghostly streets of Oradour-sur-Glane.

The great Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier once said that a traveller begins believing that he will make a journey, and ends knowing that the journey has made him. I think that this is particularly true of travels into the dark. Each place adds its own tragic texture to life, but in a way that allows the past to reach out and touch the present.

In later years, travelling with my wife and daughter, I found that we became closer and more intimate during our visits to dark places. Together we went to a home for mentally disabled children in Kumasi, to the dungeons of Elmina, to the fields of Waterloo, the procession at Lourdes, the death camp at Auschwitz, the slave quarry in Siracusa, and the salt mine at Wielickza, along with many other places of dark renown. Almost everywhere, they generated a kind of bonding we found nowhere else and came to cherish beyond measure.

Not long ago my daughter, now 37 and a world traveller herself, said: "I want to do for my son what you did for me." By this she meant that she wanted to go with him to the darker places of the globe, share that darkness with him, have similar conversations. She wanted to do this because she'd learned that it is by sharing the earth's dark places that the members of a family can most share with each other.

Tragic Shores is a memoir of our journey as a family to some of the saddest places on earth, but it is also the chronicle of how these darker travels knit us together as a family. We had been to Disneyland in Orlando, Florida, along with many other amusement parks. In such places, we had had a good deal of plain old fun. But over the years, it became clear that it was the darker places we'd seen together that had truly knit us together, stirred our moral understanding, and deepened our sense of the world.

Not long before she died, my wife said: "Remember when we were in Melos", and from there we talked about our last journey into the dark, the tragedy that had unfolded there, and how, on our arrival, we had immediately set off to explore its blood-stained hills. It was the last time we talked about our travels, but the talk was good and deep and it returned us to the value we had found in darkness. It seemed only fitting, given the personal tragedy that had struck us, that we should embrace our memories of this place, that despite the loss that was soon to be ours, we should speak of life's dark places, and of all that we had gained in their pursuit.

Photo: Richard Perry

Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel by Thomas H Cook is out this week (Quercus, £20.00).

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