“You don’t travel in order to deck yourself with exoticism and anecdotes like a Christmas tree, but so that the route plucks you, rinses you, wrings you out, makes you like one of those towels, threadbare with washing that are handed out with slivers of soap in brothels. You leave far behind you the excuses or curses of your birthplace, and in each filthy bundle lugged about in crowded waiting rooms, on little station platforms appalling in their heat and misery, you see your own coffin going by. Without this detachment and lucidity, how can you hope to convey what you have seen?” — from Nicolas Bouvier’s The Scorpion-Fish
The Swiss writer and photographer, Nicolas Bouvier, (1929-98) was a traveller in the real sense of the word, navigating different worlds and writing about forgotten people and changed places. He gives us alternative perspectives on places like the Balkans, Iran, Azerbaijan, Japan, China, Korea and the highlands of Scotland.
He is unusual in the way he writes, at times, in a stream of consciousness about the world around him and how he feels in the instant so directly and openly. In The Scorpion Fish, his description of a bomb blowing up a bus and the grisly aftermath is not only very beautifully written but mirrors his inner collapse and sense of physical decrepitude.
The Way of the World is endlessly enthralling as Bouvier describes his adventures with artist-friend, Thierry Vernet, meandering their way in a Fiat Topolino from Zagreb to Kabul. At one point they are so broke that articles and paintings have to be sold. They stay in Tabriz (Azerbaijan) for six months and end up partying with gypsies in the poorer neighbourhoods. His most-read, best-loved book, The Way of the World is filled with strong descriptions, acute observations and memorable quotes. The way he writes about the scenery, the people, his knowledge of local traditions and customs wherever he goes, and his oddball experiences, makes you want to follow in his footsteps. His criticism of “the trade in ideologies” and where it invariably leads is premonitory.
So It Goes covers his journeys undertaken in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, bringing together previously untranslated shorter travel writings.
The three small islands at the very edge of Europe where Gaelic is still spoken are considered by many to be something of a national park for Ireland’s traditional culture.
Bouvier visits the Aran islands one bleak mid-winter in the 1970s. It is wild, and man struggles against the forces of nature. He finds the sea air and wind exhilarating as he explores ancient Celtic sites, tries to get warm by the heatless peat fire in Kilronan pub, and visits the desolate cottage featured in Robert Flaherty’s famous film, Man of Aran.
One evening, his feverish head full of Galway whisky and bleak nothingness, he heads out into the darkness — “To see what this nothing was made of. The night rose from the ground like an inky blanket, no light, the black of the walls even darker than the black of the fields. A howling gale; my fists froze in the depths of my pockets. I was looking for the hermitage of St Enda, the one whose disciples had founded the monastery of St Gall and taught the rustics that we were how to cross ourselves, say grace, sing plainsong and illuminate manuscripts with ornate capitals, teeming with interlaced griffins, hawthorn, unicorns.” His encounter with a huge white carthorse in the dark is bittersweet and surreal.
In Xian, “part of the classical Chinese heartland that holds fog in greater esteem than blue skies,” Bouvier pays homage to the brilliance of his humble guide, Monsieur X. “Looking sideways at the man pretending to asleep, I saw this: a nail which had been tapped and tapped but had resisted being driven into the beam. A nail both bitter and strong: a hard, square face eloquent of the way a hammer intended to hit you can be made to bounce off.” The guide had learned a Larousse French dictionary off by heart that he’d rescued from a small French library burned by the Red Guard, and then buried in his garden.
In Kyoto, Bouvier reflects on the relationship between coloniser and colonised: “Most Japanese pay scant attention to Korea and the Koreans, forgetting what they owe to the culture that brought them, among other things, Chinese writing, Buddhism, some of the arts of fire various kinds of divination, and some magical animals.” In return, the Koreans received “colonial bullying and blows.”
In South Korea with his wife, he admires the sweeping beauty of the Buddhist temple at Haeinsa, and the seven-metre-high stone Buddha on a bush-covered peak three hours walk away. When he and his wife climb to the summit of volcanic Halla-San, they get lost. “No one ever went up and back down in a day, it was too tiring.” Thanks to his linguistic skills and charm, the tipsy soldier who finds them becomes friendly, turning a narrow escape into a harmless encounter.
The source of his curiosity, nomadic adventurousness and love of solitude comes clear at the end of the collection with a piece about his childhood in Geneva, and early rebelliousness against the expectations of his bourgeois family.
Although Bouvier was not a journalist per se, his observations about what and who he sees are like reportage. They are wrapped up in vivid almost filmic descriptions conveying a merry mish-mash of happily co-existing cultures and religions. Given the homogenization of culture across the world on the one hand, ongoing armed conflicts on the other, and now the pandemic, his writing is not only entertaining, erudite and penetrating, but elicits nostalgia.
An eccentric boho-hobo writer, he has become a cult figure, and is beautifully translated by Robyn Marsack, (she won the Scott-Moncrieff Prize in 1988 for her translation of The Scorpion-Fish). So It Goes with its particular, candid curiosity is an irresistible staycation read. Go buy it!
So It Goes – Travels in the Aran Isles, Xian and places in between by Nicolas Bouvier | Translated by Robyn Marsack | HB 184 pp ISBN: 9781780601144 | Eland Publishing
The BookBlast® Podcast
Robyn Marsack discusses Nicolas Bouvier’s So It Goes & his traveller’s tales with publisher, Rose from Eland, as part of the Bridging the Divide series for The BookBlast® Podcast.
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