This extract is from my forthcoming monograph, Travel Writing and the Transnational Author, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014 [edit: available NOW at ]. In this book I look at examples of the writing of four authors whose work has attracted rave reviews, large financial advances, and generally placed the writers themselves at the centre of an established ‘postcolonial’ ‘canon’: Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, and Salman Rushdie. Rather than focusing on their more famous literary works, however, I am interested in the travel writing produced by these authors — and, in particular, the effects of form, content, and genre that this writing has on later, less well-known (and often less critically and commercially successful) works of ‘transnational’ literature. The introduction provides a short summary of general ideas about travel writing, the lives of the individual authors, questions of privilege/gender/race, and the theoretical terrain of Travel Writing and the Transnational Author (including the reasons behind my three uses of inverted commas in this paragraph…). I then look at the four authors in turn, in two sections: the first, focusing on two authors who have written early, foundational travelogues, is called ‘Travelling Out’; the second, looking at two authors who have turned to travel writing at later stages of their respective careers, is ‘Travelling On’. The following excerpt is from the second chapter of ‘Travelling On’, and focuses on Salman Rushdie’s 1987 travelogue The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey.

All quotations are taken, with permission, from the 1997 Vintage edition. (Page numbers given in parentheses.)

A Transferred Smile — A Smile, Transferred

The title of Salman Rushdie’s travelogue The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey is based on an anonymous limerick, which the author quotes as an epigraph:

There was a young girl of Nic’ragua
Who smiled as she rode on a jaguar.
They returned from the ride
With the young girl inside
And the smile on the face of the jaguar. (vii)

The poem is in keeping with Rushdie’s love of verbal play — explored in his background in advertising,[1] and in evidence throughout his neologistic fiction.[2] The metre of this limerick, a typical example of a poetic form described as ‘an instrument of nonsense and comical verse […which] snap[s the reader] with a sharp twist in the last line’ (Padgett [ed.], 1987, 98), alters the word ‘Nicaragua’: a syllable is removed, so that the rhythm of ‘Nic’RAGua’ matches the amphibrach of the words ‘a JAGuar’. Moreover, as well as situating the work geographically, the limerick establishes the atmosphere of translation at the heart of this travelogue: the title refers to a facial expression that has been translated, or ‘carried across’,[3] from the human passenger in the limerick, who exists in an erstwhile position of dominance – ‘she rode’ – to the initially submissive feline vehicle: ‘on a jaguar’.

The limerick resurfaces at the end of the text, as further meanings behind Rushdie’s choice become clear. The particular fertility of the poem, however, is realised following a nightmare Rushdie has about being pursued across an unidentified, constantly changing landscape by the disembodied smile. He explains how he wakes up one night in a ‘jumble of nightmare, limerick and sweat’ (129), a collocation of mental, literary, and physical references that maintains an atmosphere of confusion as Michael Ondaatje does at the opening of Running in the Family.[4] This is followed by an explanation, as Rushdie explains that there are two possible readings of the limerick. In one reading, the young girl symbolises the revolution – young, idealistic – and the jaguar stands for geopolitics in general, or the US in particular; as he explains, to nurture a fledgling society and economy in the face of near-omnipotent opposition could indeed be described as ‘riding the jaguar’. In the alternative reading, however, the jaguar – initially subservient to the smiling girl, implied by the active ‘as she rode on’ – is the plucky underdog, the revolutionary forces: the violence with which the revolutionary jaguar achieves its intention of gorging on the Nicaraguan nation, ‘Miss Nicaragua’, thus calls into question the morality of the revolution.

Rushdie, in adopting this reference to a poem with two very different interpretations in his title, underlines the essential ambivalence of his attitude to the country — and, by extension, to ideas of travel and travel writing, in this travelogue and throughout his literary work. The chiastic pairing presented in the limerick – girl and jaguar, jaguar and girl – emphasises this, as the smile moves from subordinate prey to dominant predator but also from human controller to controlled beast.

[1] Rushdie spent the early part of his writing career as an advertising copywriter, producing the slogans ‘That’ll Do Nicely’ for American Express and ‘Irresistibubble’ for Aero.

[2] Compare the innovative ‘“hit-fortune […] hit-take, hit-alliance, hit-conception, hit-terious […] opposite of mis-“‘ suggested by the autodidact Vasco Miranda in The Moor’s Last Sigh (2006 [1995], 150) or the universal jumbling of ‘everywhichthing’ in Midnight’s Children (2010 [1981], 328, 331). Rushdie’s work has long focused on linguistic acrobatics, from the anagrams ‘provid[ing] the basic framework’ of his first novel, Grimus (Parameswaran, 1994, 37) to the verbal manoeuvres of the novel that ‘exhausts itself in facile wordplay’, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Gonzalez, 2005, 155).

[3] [Here I make reference to an earlier section of Travel Writing and the Transnational Author, in which I explore the origins of the words ‘translation’, ‘migration’, and ‘metaphor’, which have shared roots in the idea of ‘carrying across’: this has fascinating implications for transnational authorship and travelling existence.]

[4] [I focus on Running in the Family – a work beginning with the ‘bright bone of a dream’ (Ondaatje, 1984 [1982], 21) that the author remembers on his return to his country of birth, Sri Lanka – in both the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Travel Writing and the Transnational Author.]


Crystal, David. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. 5th edn. Malden, MA; Oxford; Melbourne, Aus; Berlin, DE: Blackwell, 2003.

Gonzalez, Madelena. Fiction After the Fatwa: Salman Rushdie and the Charm of Catastrophe. Amsterdam, NL, and NY: Rodopi, 2005.

Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. London: Macmillan, 1984 (1982).

Padgett, Ron (ed.). The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms. NY: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1987.

Parameswaran, Uma. ‘New Dimensions Courtesy of the Whirling Demons: Word-Play in Grimus’. Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Ed. D.M. Fletcher. Amsterdam, NL, and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1994, 35–44.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Random House, 2010 (1981).

—, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey. London: Vintage, 1997 (1987).

—, The Moor’s Last Sigh. London: Vintage, 2006 (1995).


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  1. Pingback: (Doubly Belated Post on) Slavery, Violence, and Cinema | Dr Sam Knowles

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