ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? By William Sutcliffe.
London: Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 0-140-27265-8
Cynical 19 year old David goes to India with his best friend's lover, Liz. David is cynical, uninterested in the Third World and simply wanting to survive this experience, which is seen as de rigor in his circle of friends. David spends much of his three months in India running from one end of the country to the other, hating it, trying to bed down Liz, and denouncing any positivity or altruism in the words and experiences of any others. In the process author David Sutcliffe spins a hilarious tale of both exaggeration and devastating accuracy and he mocks the relationship of the first worlders to the third world.
This book, seemingly about India, becomes the second book about the same theme which is in my Haiti library. The other is Dominique Lapierre's THE CITY OF JOY. The two books couldn't be more different. Lapierre's book celebrates the heroism and superiority of his Western character, who nearly single handedly saves a huge slum area. Sutcliffe calls the Westerners to the carpet, mocking their insincerity, hypocrisy and stupidity. Yet both books deal with the Westerners who escape to the Third World, India in this case, for whatever reason.
From 1983-92 I lead and sponsored may "work / experience trips to Haiti, trips in which more than 500 people participated. Many were university or high school students going to Haiti to offer service work and to experience this particular third world country. Unlike the characters in Sutcliffe's novel, I like to think that my visitors were more prepared. Before going we learned some history, culture, social expectations, even bits of language, in an effort to attempt to blend it a bit. Yet, despite my training seminars and the often deep sincerity and effort on the part of the trip members, we often never rose much above the bungling "ugly Americanism" of Sutcliffe's British subjects. We, and I reluctantly include myself in this "we," complained, were shocked, afraid, aloof and often couldn't wait to get out of Haiti and back to the comforts and familiar scenes of home.
The cultural gulf between middle America and the poor of Haiti is a gigantic gulf, not easily bridged in the best of circumstances and intentions.
Yet the very last scene of the Sutcliffe novel was also painful and familiar. David has made it home, "survived" his ordeal, and even learned some important things almost despite himself. He wants to share this huge revelation, this entire new universe with his mother, but there is no real interest on her part to hear it, and no real ability on his part to convey it all. The best he really could have done would have been to hand her Sutcliffe's novel! It might have been a nice ending.
In the days of my group trips to Haiti I always invited the members to write journals of their experiences and to share them with me. I used to regularly publish bits and pieces of these journals in STRETCH magazine. I remember several frustrated journalist complaining that they returned home, feeling completely changed, having had what they assumed was a life-changing experience and enlightenment. (How long this change and light lasted is another issue.) Yet, they often were totally frustrated by the disinterest of family and friends in hearing much about all this. What people wanted to hear was: "So how was your trip?" "Oh, fantastic! I learned so much and give of myself and was deeply moved and challenged…." End of what was people wanted to hear. Saying much more brought that staring off into the distance of people bored with stories of another's travels.
Many groups such as the one's I led go to Haiti. Some go to "missions" in the countryside and build school or churches. Others, like my groups, tend to stay around Port-au-Prince and do service work for the needy in places like the homes of the Missionary of Charity Sisters or Ecole St. Vincent. Two of my thirty some groups were Webster University student trips and these people mixed service work with less formal "experiences" of the country. The characters in Sutcliffe's novel are more like European backpackers, it just happens they are in India. Drugs were on universal attraction, so was sex. The other just seemed to be so see just how many sites one could tick off and how much exoticism on could fit it, bitching and bragging about the experiences in turn.
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? will not be a pleasant read for everyone. It is very cynical, even bitter. It is extremely non politically correct. It will offend many. I found it utterly hilarious and pointed. I found myself both laughing at the craziness of the experiences, thinking how stupid and absurd the characters were, yet knowing, even as I tried to deny it and duck it, that these characters were not much different from me, if at all. My primary experience of a third world country is certainly Haiti where I've been more than forty times in the past 16 years. This novel is about India. I had a very difficult time remembering that. The bus rides, experiences of the beggars, fear of the unknown and difference, the physical hardships of everyday life, the proneness to and fear of illness, the frequent diarrhea and other travelers difficulties, these and many more such details, made India fade away and had me mixing my Haiti with David's India in such a way that Asia and the Caribbean seemed more alike than different.
I recommend ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? with caution. One needs to be able to laugh at oneself, and be willing to recognize and accept some contradictions between who we might want to be and who we often are. One needs to be able to read about politically incorrect people fumbling along, and willing to laugh at their absurdities and stupidities even as one uncomfortably recognizes how close to home the descriptions are. Within those cautions, William Sutcliffe offers an insightful and very very funny novel.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org