They’re asking all the questions that tourists ask. When Mimi shares the information in her travel guide, about a bunch of bronze babies, mid-crawl and faceless, she muses aloud about their meaning. Maybe something to do with television and the angst of modern existence, she suggests. Mimi’s relentless curiosity and her determination to engage Bird in her deliberate and exhaustive explorations of their surroundings is comical. She’s forever insisting on a restaurant that’s a forty-minute-walk away from their current location.
They’re also asking another set of questions: what does art mean? who has the authority to declare what creative works are significant? how do we interpret the things we encounter in our daily lives? how different is that process when we are removed from our quotidian experience and existing in a temporary and unfamiliar location? (But, if you don’t want to think about that, you can just focus on those faceless babies.)
Bird and Mimi are in motion, across the globe (they reside in Guelph, Ontario), because an ancestor, Uncle Leroy, carried away a family medicine bundle many years before; the couple follows his trail of postcards and they investigate the clues as they travel. It could be an archetypal tale of discovery. But check your expectations at the door: “‘Authentic is overdone,’ said Bernie. ‘Authentic is one of the ideas Whites use to hold us in place. It’s one of the ways we hold ourselves in place.’”
Thomas King’s characters are in motion, like those bronze babies, either directionless or homing; they’re aging and questing, determined and uncertain. They encounter the unexpected. They reset the archetype. Bird remarks: “The first expectation of a good travel story is that something went wrong. No one wants to hear about the perfectly uneventful time you spent in Istanbul. Not even you.” (But if you don’t want to philosophize, you can focus on the train schedules, the landmarks in the guide books, and the backstories for the characters that gradually unfold.)
Consider Mimi, for instance, when she’s researching dinner options. She’s looking for an authentic Czech experience; she’s disappointed that there are no traditional desserts on the menu (no medovnik, no makovy kolucek) and patrons have to settle for tiramisu. She, too, wants something authentic, even while acknowledging the burdens of authenticity, the blurred line between stereotyping and prejudice. She’s disappointed when the waiter speaks English, when “Secret Agent Man” plays, and both she and Bird are puzzled as to why there’s a pommel horse in the middle of the restaurant. It’s concrete, relatable.
What we expect, what we don’t expect: whether we are travelling or at home, whether we are encountering fictional events on the page or moving through the world we inhabit on a daily basis, this is at the core of Indians on Vacation and also at the core of our existence. Because the gap between reality and what we expect (and don’t expect) means that things are always changing. Always changing and never changing. So that, at times, it’s hard to sort out which is which. It’s symbolic, existential.
When he was younger, Bird worked as a journalist. Once, he was asked: “Why waste your time writing about something that can’t be changed? Where is the good in that? What do you expect will happen when you publish this story?” Bird’s still pondering the answer. Meanwhile, he’s drinking a lot of coffee (there are so many espressos and cappuccinos in this novel!), and he’s eating quite a few pastries and some ice-cream (there’s some talk of fruit, and kale gets a mention). It’s what you do while you’re figuring out all the rest of it.