The Way of the World

April 15, 2010

Churches. Nicolas Bouvier’s travel book The Way of the World ends slipping away:

That day, I really believed that I had grasped something and that henceforth my life would be changed. But insights cannot be held for ever. Like water, the world ripples across you and for a while you take on its colors. Then it recedes, and leaves you face to face with the void you carry inside yourself, confronting that central inadequacy of soul which you must learn to rub shoulders with and to combat, and which, paradoxically, may be our surest impetus.

Leading up to the end, he combats it with moving on, tea, and people on the way. Stay a while, maybe not. His companion Thierry Vernet draws fleeting postcards of their trip from Serbia through Asia. Some hint at Matisse or set design just after the war. They’re all evocative, wonderful, just what you’d hope to find years later in your journals. Yet Vernet seems another void. Their rattletrap Fiat has more personality.

Bouvier wrote the book years later from journals and memories. One achievement’s in feeling like it unfolds in real time. Another’s that of a later man recalling himself at 24, yet just occasionally interrupting:

[Antoine] said to me, “Have you tried the Iranians? I have… they’re great.” The word “tried” discouraged me, so I left it at that. He has seen all of Europe, Russia and Persia too, but has refused to surrender an inch of his integrity. What a surprising programme! Maintaining his integrity — remaining intrinsically the same simpleton who first set out? He couldn’t have seen very much, then, because there isn’t a single country — as I now know — which doesn’t exact its pound of flesh.

I still think this is true. But now, when it’s just an ounce? I met a weary German ruefully telling of the rich American who’d bribed a border guard to “get into” Turkmenistan. Five bucks to hop off his motorcycle across the line, then he checked the next box and went back where he came from, triumphant.

Of course, travel doesn’t need a purpose. Most current travel books get mired in the writer’s head, or go policy wonking. Bouvier stays with appearances, like this face:

The book reaches its climax somewhere in Pakistan. They’re holed up in a desert town. And the cleaning boy throws out Nicolas’ manuscript. The one we’re reading? So he drags Thierry to an ancient garbage dump on a plain, where with spades and vultures in the heat of day, they dig. This scene hints at the scope of civilization, entropy, of humankind’s quest not to get picked to the bone by carrion-birds, or it just underscores its metaphors with shirts off and shovels for pens. He could wax lyrical; he skirts it to dig.

Let sleeping voids lie. Or just fill them with this:

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