GUEST REVIEW BY ANDREW WINER
Early on in The Way of the World, Nicolas Bouvier’s masterly account of a road trip across the Balkans and Asia that he undertook in 1953 with his painter friend Thierry Vernet, Bouvier asserts that “traveling provides occasions for shaking oneself up but not, as people believe, freedom.” That he and Vernet, still so young at the time, somehow possess enough wisdom to forfeit agency to the exigencies of travel in foreign lands serves them well. Due to the unreliability of their vehicle—an old Fiat Topolino—these two Swiss spend more time, literally and narratively, in the auto repair shops of obscure Central and South Asian villages than in the great cities of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Yet bad luck with Italian transmissions proves be a boon for them and us: blighted repair garages are where near-metaphysical encounters, and certainly some of the book’s most vibrant characters, are to be found, as in the Persian hamlet of Zhedn: “The only mechanic in town was a sort of majestic hermit who spent his days sitting cross-legged in the corner of the bazaar, where he also sold a few vegetables. He briefly examined our broken gear-wheel, which shone like a jewel against his immaculate robe. I looked at the well-fed, Christ-like face, his brown toes as clean and fleshy as a baby’s. It seemed inconceivable that this saint should concern himself with things mechanical.” Descriptions like this, in which a kind of beatnik openness to the moment blends with a Western hunger for the East’s otherness, struck a chord with the flower-children generation of Sixties France, earning the book, originally published as L’Usage du Monde, cult status on the Continent and misleading comparisons to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Bouvier forgoes Kerouac’s solipsism, but not his desire to see what’s out there and make connections of what he finds, no matter how disparate. Replacement parts for his Fiat, naturally hard to come by in the remote outposts he visits, have to be ordered from distant cities, and their exorbitant cost and delayed delivery set the rhythm of the trip: cheap lodgings must be located, food must be found, more money must be earned—in short, our two travelers are required to enter the fabric of life in whatever roadside halt they happen to be stranded, and this is where the book finds its center and Bouvier the writer really shines. His traveling companion is the painter, but Bouvier proves himself to be a great painter of words, and a fast one. In a few brushstrokes, he captures a cheap restaurant in the Tabriz bazaar, “where portions of rice gleamed like snow under cages full of birds made drowsy by pipe-smoke and steaming tea,” or an entire Pakistani city (Quetta), where “there was a tremendous profusion of notices, signs, untimely injunctions, advertisements ... Cornflakes ... Be happy ... Smoke Capistan ... Keep Left ... Dead Slow ... smothering this frugal town life. Despite the rhetoric scrawled in aniline, the town weighed nothing. There was no glue—a strong wind could carry it away. Its fragility gave it great charm.”
If such passages betray the author’s eye for place, they are merely the gilt work that frames his main subject: us. For Nicolas Bouvier, and it’s one of the reasons his work has lasting appeal, travel writing affords an opportunity to ask big questions, such as how one ought to live a life, and to show us something about the human soul and its travails in the real world. In training his eye on the people he encounters and the lives they have fashioned in isolated locales, Bouvier manages both to limn character with unusual compassion and uncover existential verities. When he and Vernet are peremptorily (and comically) “offered” hospitality in the local prison by the nervous captain of Mahabad, a Kurdish outpost in northern Iran, Bouvier draws this portrait of the man: “The captain wasn’t quite sure of his right to confine us, so in the evenings he invited his upper-crust prisoners for conversation. He treated them gently, partly from genuinely humanitarian motives, partly because he was afraid of being shot by one of their relatives. Both motives are necessary to make a world.” Indeed. A little bit of fear, and local law, never hurts our chances of acting benevolently, and no wonder that it is here, during his prison stay, where Bouvier reads a borrowed copy of the Old Testament and sees its living relevance to the place, really to all of the Middle East. Saying farewell to the proprietress of a Turkish inn, he writes: “She saw us, saw our traveling gear and said, ‘God bless you, my little pigeons ... the Madonna protect you, my little lambs ... ’ and then she began to speak in Polish. She continued, without pausing, in tones of such desolate tenderness that it took us a moment to realize that she was no longer looking at us nor speaking to us, but to one of those ancient shadows, loved and lost, which accompany the old into exile and linger in the depths of their lives . . . We closed the door.” That last gesture, closing the door on the lamenting proprietress, is a sympathetic (rather than judgmental) one. It says everything about this author’s large reserves of understanding and humanity, and his courage to depict goodness as a layered thing, found along the ever-shifting fault lines where innate altruism and self-concern meet.
Bouvier’s most enjoyable character study comes in the person of Terence, a homosexual who, in his former career as a guardsmen, once roamed importantly all over Europe and the Middle East, but now runs a bar called Saki in provincial Quetta, where he is called “Colonel” by the customers, and where he wiles away the time playing records of his favorite arias, “excellent pre-war pressings, well-worn by sun and sand, with some surprises in store: the violins, woodwind and a famous female voice would soar above a sort of gun-fire, then suddenly the needle would veer towards the middle with a terrible squeal and the phrase, cut off clean—as enigmatic as fragments from oracles whose meanings are ambivalent—would float over the Saki. Terence would give a start as though he had been fired at point-blank range, and turned to us as witnesses; the way things wear out and age behind our backs affected him greatly.” This is the kind of privileging of dailiness—as a locus of permanent meaning—that we expect to find in novels, the whole history of a man and his sorrow at its irretrievability conjured up by a scratched record album.
Like a good novelist, Bouvier has an instinct for getting out of the way while still using himself as a subject. Sometimes that self is employed to express appreciation for what a place can do for one’s state of mind, as with his parting tribute to Belgrade: “What she could give already counted for more than what she still lacked. If I didn’t manage to write anything substantial there, it was because being happy took up all my time. Besides, we cannot judge as to whether time is lost.” Elsewhere the self is used to acknowledge gratitude for the simplest of things. After a long day of trying to scrounge up money for his articles, the author comes home to find a gift from his traveling companion: “Sitting on a maple leaf, there was a melon and a goat cheese. It was frugal, but so natural that I felt it had been waiting for me for years.” And Bouvier certainly means to show—it’s one of his great themes—how the simplest of things, such as the flies that relentlessly bite him as if he were dead carrion, can cause the self to suffer: “Man is too demanding: he dreams of a chosen death, something finished and personal, its outline complementing that of his life . . . The fly of Asia doesn’t make these distinctions.”
Perhaps what lifts The Way of the World into the realm of literature (besides its perfect rhythm, those enviable sentences that Robyn Marsack has translated with such skill) is that its author doesn’t merely get out of the way but rather subjects himself to a nearly religious form of self-abnegation. Humility can help a writer looking for clues on the other side of existence; and asceticism, when it comes into contact with the richness and variety of the world, often produces astonishing results. Bouvier, who believes that traveling’s virtue is that it purges life before filling it up, writes:
There’s no need to interfere: the road does the work for you. One would like to think that it stretches out like this, dispensing its good offices, not just to the ends of India but even further, until death. When I went home, there were many people who had never left who told me that with a bit of imagination and concentration they traveled just as well, without lifting their backsides off their chairs. I quite believed them. They were strong people: I’m not. I need that physical displacement, which for me is pure bliss. Moreover, happily, the world reaches out to the weak and supports them. When the world—as on some evenings on the Macedonian road—is made up of the moon on the left hand, the silvery waves of the Morava on the right, and the prospect of looking for a village over the horizon in which to spend the next three weeks, then I would be sorry to dispense with it.
The romantic chord of that last line is struck more than once in the book, but, lest anyone suspect Bouvier of quixotism, it should be noted that his longings to cast off everything and crest the next hill are consistently made to reckon with a sober view of life, and his journey of the spirit is judiciously prevented from floating away by realities on the ground, literally: one of the book’s more memorable passages finds the author fruitlessly shoveling through a reeking town dump for pages of his manuscript that were accidentally tossed in the trash. He never recovers them, but instead excavates a map of class inequality in Quetta. “In this detritus you could find what was, in effect, a pale image of the layout of the town,” he tells us dispassionately. “Poverty doesn’t produce the same waste as wealth; each level had its muck, and . . . we changed neighborhoods with each spadeful.” The book’s elliptical marvels are no less grounded by Bouvier’s lightly-worn historical erudition, and the deft subtlety with which he evokes the political. Early in the trip, he uses the wild success of a Serbian sculptor to imply (and implicate) whole political movements that have recently swept over Central Europe: “Times had been kind to him; with monuments to the dead, red granite stars, effigies of resistance fighters battling against 125 mph winds, he had at least four years of commissions. It wasn’t surprising; at first the business of secret committees, revolutions become established, ossify, and rapidly become business for sculptors.” There is even room, on Bouvier’s pallette, for the political and the social to mix, and the results are surprisingly touching. What reader will ever forget the Yugoslavian peasants he describes, who, suffering from the constrictions of life under Tito, have “too few amusements to let any slip,” and are willing to hand over their hard-earned money to Bouvier in order to view his traveling companion’s art exhibit? They leave their sacks of fertilizer at the door, and take money from under their caps to pay for admittance. Then, strolling from drawing to drawing, hands behind their backs, they gaze at each one, “determined to have their money’s worth ... weighing up the work.”
We, too, get to weigh up the work: not just a selection of Thierry Vernet’s watercolors that are included, and the excellent introduction by, appropriately enough, Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose own A Time of Gifts is one of the few modern travel memoirs that deserves to sit on the same shelf as this one, but also a memoir whose release in America is long overdue, both for its timelessness and its political relevance. History has a way of making felicitous accidents appear as foresight. The Balkans, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan—for their travel itinerary some sixty-five years ago, the young Nicolas Bouvier and his friend happened to choose parts of the world that have recently been thrown into much turmoil, making this book that rare thing: a classic that is of the moment. Though perhaps that shouldn’t be such a revelation. The greatest travel books invariably do double duty: they make us long to go to a place, and they tear down those false facades of distance, malice, and prejudice erected by politicians and militarism and headline news. Contemporary American readers would do well to follow Bouvier to these places that are now very much part of the way of our world.
Andrew Winer is the recent recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. His new novel, The Marriage Artist, will be published by Henry Holt in October of 2010. He is married to the writer Charmaine Craig, with whom he has two daughters.