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from the February 2010 issue

Nicolas Bouvier’s “The Way of the World”

Reviewed by André Naffis-Sahely

Two Swiss men are at the Iranian border. The year is 1953, just a few months prior to the CIA-sponsored coup. The night is dark. A customs officer emerges from his pavilion and shines his acetylene lamp on the men: “I am sorry my friends,” he says, “you must have a soldier to escort you as far as Maku.” The officer then produces “a mongoloid midget in puttees . . . as though he'd plucked him out of his slipper.” The travelers continue down the road. Nicolas Bouvier, twenty-four, is at the wheel. Thierry Vernet, twenty-six, is in the passenger-seat rolling cigarettes. The midget is sat on the bonnet, “smiling a sweet smile.” He reeks of mutton and is humming a little tune.

It is an unlikely trio. Bouvier and Vernet had set out nine months earlier from Ljubljana, driving through Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey. It was the first leg of a trip that would eventually take the two to Ceylon. Bouvier, who had just completed his university studies, left without waiting for his results. Vernet, a painter, had joined Bouvier on an earlier trip from Venice to Istanbul in 1951. Two years later they threw a few suitcases into their shabby Fiat Topolino, that high-mark of Italian engineering, and left Geneva, their home, for—well . . .  for the world. For Bouvier it would be a full three years before he returned home: “Traveling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you.”

The Way of The World, Bouvier's memoir of the journey, which he self-published a full decade after he first set out, and now available for the first time in the U.S., is the début of a long-overlooked master. The sheer scope of the journey alone merits our attention. From the streets of Belgrade with their old-shoe vendors and Romany singers to Kabul’s smoking hookah joints, the geographies the duo traverse are truly stupefying: Macadonia, Thrace, the Black Sea coast, the mountains of Kurdistan, the deserts of Lut and Kavir in Central Iran, Baluchistan, the Afghan Highlands, the Hindu Kush—how vast these entities, encased in such small names!—but it is Iran which takes pride of place. Almost half of the book's three hundred pages are devoted to that country, in the aptly-titled section, The Lion and the Sun. Bouvier's fascination yields some remarkable insights into a world now inaccessible to most Western eyes:

Nothing is impossible in Iran: the spirit has as much room for the best as for the worst, and you have to take into account their constant and fanatical longing for perfection. It can drive the most carefree souls to the rashest of resolves.

What distinguishes a worthwhile piece of travel narrative is its capacity to show how the narrator evolves and learns to heed his surroundings, rather than his perceptions. While walking in the impoverished Armenian quarter of Tabriz, a city in north-western Iran, not far from the Caspian, Bouvier decides to visit a tchaikhane [tea-house]:

The first time I wandered into it utter silence fell immediately—as if the ceiling were about to cave in—and lasted so long that I kept my head right down and didn't dare write a line. I thought that I lived frugally, but my shabby hat, my ragged jacket and my boots seemed to shout comfort and a full stomach. I buried my hands in my pockets to stifle some jingling change. I was wrong to be afraid; it was the most peaceful den in town.

Tabriz in the 1950s, as Bouvier captures it, is spellbinding. We come across Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Azeris, Russians, and of course, Iranians; we visit warm teahouses with smoking samovars, drink rivers of arak and vodka. We meet two priests reading detective novels in a run-down mission behind the French Consulate: “I have all the vices” one of the priests confesses, “it's better that way,”— and the “winter,” we “see,” “feel,” and “hear” the winter: “in the night the thermometer falls to minus 30º, a cutting wind gusts from the north. The wolves get bolder and those without jobs in the suburbs gang up to rob the peasants. Beards and moustaches freeze over, hands stay in pockets.” Once a populous mercantile city, Bouvier finds Tabriz a sleepy remnant of its former self. 'Old M—' a wealthy Turkish arbab [village-owner] elaborates:

“Looking West, Tabriz is the last bastion of Central Asia, and when the old jewelers in the bazaar talked about Samarkand—they used to go there in search of stones—you should have seen the way people listened . . .” “Central Asia,” he added, “since the fall of Byzantium—that's something your historians don't understand any more.

Everything around Bouvier instructs or delights him—and there is much delight, “what impresses me most is gaiety” he says: Kurdish boys lusting after Armenian girls, a former Wehrmacht Doctor named Paulus, a misanthropic Texan advisor, an Iranian jailer; the cast is varied and amusing episodes are rife. In Quetta, Bouvier ends up sifting through a landfill to rescue a manuscript a bellboy had unwittingly swept out of his room. The hotel manager, another one of those characters with a story always at hand, consoles Bouvier with an anecdote. A friend of his had also lost a manuscript in the Partition massacres: “He spent years reconstructing it, remembering it, rewriting it . . . and believe me, it wasn't much good.” The book is studded with epigrammatic cadences: “you must have a routine to get through winter.”—as well as snippets of poetry:

. . . If the mystic doesn't know the secret of the world

I wonder how the innkeeper came to learn it so well

These lines by Hafez sum The Way of The World up well. They encapsulate why those who travel spurred by curiosity and an almost single-minded sense of adventure do as they do. It is not an easy path. The demands that such a lifestyle imposes are a strain, sometimes too much of one. After eight months in Tabriz, Vernet is ready to rebel: “. . . returning from the baths, I found him on the point of exploding . . . ‘I can't stand this prison, this trap’—and at first, blinded by egoism, I didn't understand he meant our travels.” Vernet missed his girlfriend, wanted to marry. “Fine,” Bouvier concludes, “I had not really envisaged sickness or love interrupting this adventure, but preferred it to be love. He [Vernet] was pressing on with his life. I wanted to mislay mine, perhaps in a corner of that Central Asia whose proximity was so alluring.” There is no bitterness here, merely determination. Bouvier knew he was no pioneer; he was not looking to discover, other than be immersed in the act of discover-ing, of becom-ing. The book's allure is no less diminished by the fact Bouvier was no trailblazer. The itinerary he and Vernet take rests on a much mythologized road—call it the “Silk road,” “the hippie trail,” call it what you will—it has exerted a grip on Western literature from Marco Polo's Million in the thirteenth century right down to Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana in the twentieth. The region has inspired countless works. Some in unexpected ways. Frederic Prokosch's The Asiatics, for instance, which Prokosch worked on while a student at Harvard, was written with such command that the book was praised by both Eliot and Mann for its authority. Yet the author never saw that part of the world until much later in life.

This new title is a welcome event—necessary even. Bouvier is unfortunately not a fixture on our shelves. Although Bouvier's status in France is comparable to that of Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux or Tom Miller, few English-language readers have so far come across his work. This seems an undeserved fate for a book which has drawn comparisons with Kerouac's On The Road, and has been regularly touted a “lost classic.” London-based Eland Press have done an admirable job in presenting Bouvier to the UK public, as the NYRB have done in the U.S. with their recent edition. Their volume features an excellent introduction by the inimitable Patrick Leigh Fermor as well as Robyn Marsack's superb translation from the French. Thierry Vernet's glossy sketches in china ink are also faithfully reproduced and form an integral part of the work, capturing urban and rural scenes alike with warm, unencumbered strokes. One can only hope that Bouvier's other books—and he wrote a fair number in the last couple of decades before his death in 1998—will also soon make their appearance in the U.S. There are many to choose from. Apart from The Way of The World, Bouvier also wrote on Ceylon—his novel, The Scorpion-Fish, was published by Gallimard in 1982—as well as on Japan and the Aran Islands.

Bouvier deserves to be relished by all serious readers of travel literature.

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