The Space In-between in West's "Journey"

In the introduction to Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing, James Duncan and Derek Gregory outline major concepts related to travel writing. One in particular caught my eye: “as descriptions move from one place to another… they circulate in what we have called ‘a space in-between’... In general, and as Venuti (1993, 210) points out, translation [in this case, translating experience from foreign climes and customs, etc.] is either a ‘domesticating method, an ethnographic reduction of the foreign text to target language cultural values, bringing the author back home’ or a ‘foreignizing method, an ethnographic pressure on those values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad’” (4-5). Travel writing, then, can be understood as making the foreign familiar or foregrounding foreignness-- of a place or people, say. Yet as the text attempts to make familiar/foreign, it never quite resolves into one or the other; it exists in-between. It’s with this frame that I considered West’s chapter, “Journey.”

The “space in-between” in this chapter exists in a couple of places. The first is in its relationship to the genre of travel writing. The chapter title, “Journey,” suggests an exoticness and a certain excitement that a more accurate title, like “Train Ride,” would elide. Even in the content of the chapter, West ironically plays on the genre of travel writing. She is concerned with the social politics within the train car more than she is the Yugoslavian landscape or culture without. A few instances pop through, as when the “snowfields” appear or discussions of food take place. These elements typical of the genre are humorously deflated and overshadowed, as when the scenery is easily forgotten as the passengers enact justice on the second-class ticket holder or when West falls into a consideration of taste and nationalistic food superiority. The space in-between here creates tension in the narrative, made all the more humorous (darkly humorous) by the weighty topics alongside which they are placed (in West’s narrative but also in the sensibilities of the Europeans passengers).

The other space in-between is in West’s consideration of the German passengers. In many ways, the Germans are the subject of West’s attention. She asks us to sympathize and pity them for their imprisonment within Nazism, yet they exhibit a moral failure in their willingness to eject someone else from the train car while justifying their own rule breaking. There is uncertainty in this scene, I would argue, as West humanizes the Germans: they are people who quibble over small inconsequential things and run into typical problems. This familiarization is broken by the end, though, as they become “incomprehensible” but also “exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known” (37). Even in the ending, the Germans maintain both their illegibility and foreignness and their familiarity. One could argue that West’s “journey” is one of observing German tourists, fellow travelers who despite their familiar quirks and characteristics become legible alongside the foreign Nazi regime.

The chapter ends on an innocuous note, albeit a funny one, as the Germans “[break] into excessive cries of exasperation and distress” because the train stop is several miles from Zagreb’s city center. While this scene works as a humorous retribution, the key to West’s ending is her witnessing an elderly man searching for “Anna.” This sad but sweet scene is immediately recognizable and familiar to West: “I was among people I could understand” she writes in the final line. West becomes at several points a defender of Yugoslavian worth as a country, namely through a defense of their local food and hotel accommodations. And she closes the chapter in this very way. The space in-between the foreign and familiar is dispelled as the Germans leave, taking with them a sense of foreignness and incomprehensibility. What is left is West looking out the window at a stranger in a foreign country. Here is where she finds the familiar.