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The Way of the World
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
It was the `50's, and two authors hit the road. Since having read it, I think that Jack Kerouac's work, with the subject title is vastly overrated. He bounced back and forth between the oceans that encompass America, and seemed to see so little. But Nicolas Bouvier, seven years younger, was so much more perceptive, and undertook a bolder and more arduous journey, in a beat-up Fiat, with his artist companion Thierry Vernet.

At 25 they simply did not have the financial resources to undertake the trip, so they "had to wing it," and more than once benefited from the kindness of strangers. As an epigraph, he quotes Shakespeare: "I shall be gone and live, or stay and die." And to those that have done it, the end of his preface rings true: "Traveling outgrows it motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you - or unmaking you."

Bouvier was one of the trail-blazers along what would become known as the "hippie route to India" in the `70's. He is Swiss French, from Geneva; he meets Thierry in Yugoslavia. They travel on through Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and into Afghanistan, with the book, but not the journey (apparently) ending at the Khyber Pass, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It takes them 18 months to complete this portion (they "wintered" in Tabriz, Iran). They both have an astonishingly well-developed aesthetic sense, and are quite knowledgeable in a broad range of fields, particularly for their age. And they are observant, both of their surroundings, and human nature. They have a "knack" for dealing with government officials, and the people of the road.

Bouvier spins numerous memorable aphorisms: "It's very odd how revolutions which profess to know the people take so little account of their sensibilities, and fall back on slogans and symbols that are even more simple-minded than the ones they're replacing"; or, in terms of travel, "We denied ourselves every luxury except one, that of being slow." Considering where we are now, always plugged in, and "on-line," Bouvier makes an incredibly prescient observation for the `50's: "They lack technology: we want to get out of the impasse into which too much technology has led us, our sensibilities saturated to the nth degree with Information and a Culture of distractions."

Consider his descriptive powers, and insight in the following observation: "Time passed in brewing tea, the odd remark, cigarettes, then dawn came up. The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges...and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory, like a sheet-anchor that one day I could draw up again...In the end, the bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say or think of you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more."

This is also a book that should be required reading for the American military general staff: "The Afghans don't change their ways for Westerners. There was no trace of the spinelessness some second-rate Indians greet you with, or the phony psychic powers some of them claim. Is it the effect of the mountains? No, it's rather that the Afghans have never been colonized.... Thus there is no affront to wash away, no complex to heal. A foreigner? Simply a man."

The best portions of the book were their time in Yugoslavia, "Kurdistan," and at the Saki bar in Quetta. Perhaps it is the nature of travel, but I felt his anecdotes were too disjointed. There were numerous issues that were never explained, yet were central to the trip: Why winter in the bitter cold of Tabriz when it would have been much more enjoyable in Shiraz? Why end the book as he is to enter Pakistan, and there was apparently much more traveling ahead? How did they get back to Europe? Did he have his reunion with Thierry, and his new bride? His vignette of searching the Quetta "dump" for his lost manuscript is memorable; but it underscores the fact that all notes of his journey were lost there, and it was only 10 years later that the account was reconstructed in this form. Finally, though his observations about Islam seemed well-informed, he did get the Higerian century wrong - it was the 14th (p 98).

Eighteen years after Bouvier I undertook a very similar journey, making it all the way to Madras, before flying on to Singapore (since deck passage on a boat across the Bay of Bengal was "not recommended to people of European origins"). I didn't have even a beat-up Fiat, and had to rely on local buses and trains, probably to my overall advantage. I wish I had this book to compliment my "Lonely Plant" guide, for a journey that almost certainly can not be made in peace for a person "of European origins" for another two decades. And for sure, I would have seen so much more if I had had Bouvier's erudition. For his age, a 5-star book, for sure; in the fullness of time though, I'll give it 4-stars.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on June 21, 2010)
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 8 July 1997
The Way of the World takes me back to when a generation traveled the world with backpacks, motorcycles and VW buses.
It is a travel log set in the late fifties, of two casual travelers in their early twenties, who set off on a trip from Europe to India to explore the backroads and see life in its essence as lived by the local people.
The book paints the pictures of gypsys, artists, mountain families and ancient cities with bazaars, using local color and the eye of an artist.
Those who have traveled with similiar resources will enjoy the challenges of the innovative repair of an old Fiat in the middle of a desert, the capricousness of venturing into another country with only pocketchange, and the discovery that most people in the world do have a love of strangers.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 25 September 2009
One of the best reisebucher I know.
On par with Byron's Oxiana, only much "younger" in mindset and style.
Could be better edited, but (minor) imperfections add to the charm of this book which I found way above any otherwise respectable if oversold Chatwin
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 May 2012
Having travelled a similar route to Bouvier 20 years after him and just a couple of years younger (though by local buses) `The Way of the World' had a lot of resonance for me. I thought I knew all the best accounts of travels in these regions but only became aware of this book recently while reading Bouvier's excellent `Japanese Chronicles'. Both books are beautifully written (or more correctly, beautifully translated, though I'm sure the original French is at least as beautifully written) and full of wonderful insight, historical context and imagery. Bouvier was clearly an intelligent and learned man but wears his intelligence and learning lightly with his seeming modesty and quirky humour. What strikes one initially as a little curious in TWotW is the missing detail - Why did Bouvier and his friend Thierry set off on this journey? What preparations did they make? Where did they buy fuel along the way? What lives did they lead before the journey? However, ultimately I think it made for a better read this way - less of the distracting mundane detail, more of the `feel' of the whole experience. I particularly liked the descriptions of the many colourful characters they met along the way, for example, Terence at the Saki Bar in Quetta. The characters I met on my trip provided some of my most enduring memories. Implausible as many of them seem on the written page, I can tell you I met Terences all the way from Athens to Kathmandu.
....oh and did I mention the quality of the writing? Just dug out my diary from my own trip and compared my accounts of some of the places visited (e.g. Tabriz, Kabul) with Bouvier's. A different league. If you think you've already read the best in travel writing then read `The Way of the World'. Wonderful stuff.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 October 2011
Enjoyable from the beginning, in English tough. Sometimes few sentences stopped my reading; I had to read them few times more to focus on the meaning. Nevertheless,
Monsieur Bouvier has been a nice company, definitively not boring (btw, my first Swiss author). I like the care of his comments, how he experienced the journey appreciating the core of local realities, the different colours and smells. I went back to my memories in Macedonia, but especially in Turkey. Although it has changed so much in the past 40 years, he reminded me how comfortable/welcome I felt over there, the wind from Galata Bridge (nice drawing also) and he also reopened the bright pictures collected inside.
On top of everything, I was quite surprised about his acute historical-politics observations. I mean, I am not an expert at all but its heft really surprised me. I think, he describes a very current topic regarding the difficult relationship between the East and the West; the already influence/presence of the Americans in the Middle East. I think, if the West had looked through the eyes of Monsieur Bouvier today, perhaps the word would be a little bit better.
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on 9 October 2012
In The Way of the World, Nicolas Bouvier recounts his youthful wanderjahr--actually a year and a half--with a painter pal, driving a finicky two-seater from his hometown of Geneva all the way to Afghanistan from 1953 to 1954. He's young then--in his mid-20s--but wrote the book later, self-publishing it first in 1963. It's a lovely book, full of youthful hope, sharply observed people from all walks of life, and colorful anecdotes. It's a world long since gone: Communist Yugoslavia before civil war rent it apart; Turkey still feeling its way in the world; Iran in the early days of the Shah, mere months after the overthrow of Mossadegh.

Bouvier and Thierry Vernet, his traveling companion, search for work periodically to refresh their meager funds: freelance writing for Bouvier, art exhibitions for Vernet. It's interactions with the people they meet in these efforts that gives the book its special appeal--Bouvier has a knack for telling anecdotes that come alive in all their ordinariness.

By late 1953, the pair have landed in Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, their little car unable to make it through the snow-covered passes that lead to Tehran and points farther east. They find a cheap apartment in Armenistan, the Christian Armenian quarter, and settle in, Bouvier teaching French to quietly desperate students. The delay in Tabriz is priceless for us: Bouvier paints a picture of daily life so real, and now so long gone, that it's aching in its poignancy. One tiny sample: he tells the story of a neighbor's daughter, an Armenian girl in love with a Muslim boy, and the impossibility of their lives. She kills herself along with her lover rather than be forced to live apart.

With the spring thaw, the two travelers straggle into Tehran, then across eastern Iran to newly born Pakistan, and end up in Afghanistan, cast back in time before the modern world intruded.

The Way of the World contains many passages worth slowing down to ponder. Take one moment, when they are just east of Erzurum in eastern Turkey (which I remember well, the bright blue September sky streaked with swirls of clouds, the tiled towers from the 1100s dazzlingly azure):

"Time passed in brewing tea, the odd remark, cigarettes, then dawn came up. The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges ... and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory like a sheet anchor that one day I could draw up again. You stretch, pace to and fro feeling weightless, and the word `happiness' seems to thin and limited to describe what has happened.

"In the end, the bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say or think of you, but of moments like this, when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more." (p. 94-95)

And mostly what strikes me reading Bouvier is how much we lose in not seeing the past as part of the fabric of the present. In Iran, one student of Bouvier's laments the rise of fanatics in Islam. He tells Bouvier in early 1954:

" 'Islam here? True Islam? It's absolutely finished--even more so now that fanaticism has reemerged with its hysteria and suffering. They come along behind their black banners, smashing up shops here and there, or they go into sacred trances on the anniversary of the Imans' deaths, and mutilate themselves.... Not much that's ethical there, and as for doctrine...! I knew some genuine Muslims here, really remarkable people, but they're all dead or have left. And now... Fanaticism, you see,' he continued, `is the last revolt of the poor, the only one they can't be denied. It makes them noisy on Sundays but quiet the rest of the week--there are people here who see to that. A lot of things would be better if there were fewer empty stomachs.' " (p. 105)

He's spot on, too, describing Americans he meets in Iran, their optimism, their naïveté, their unconsciousness to the true sources of power, and the fact that American ideals simply are out of place in Iran; things just don't work that way there.

The Way of the World could be compared, in a way, to Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts: travels by a young man, written up in retrospect, with more wisdom than someone of such youth might be expected to have earned. The world Bouvier describes is almost as much dead and buried as Leigh Fermor's pre-war Europe, too, yet is very alive in his telling. This is nourishing book is well worth reading--and re-reading.
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on 23 June 2014
Normally a big of the writers that Eland choose to publish. Unfortunately I could not say that I was s much a fan of this author in fact I found him dull and plodding at times, That was a shame because this was an interesting journey. However other writers who have travelled and described some of these (Dervla Murphy for one) areas do so far better.
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on 3 August 2013
I wonder how this book would read if the same trip were made today. I suspect that further generations of the people they met would still be living their lives in similar ways. I felt I travelled with them as they immersed themselves in the journey and the pleasure of experiencing different cultures.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 14 September 2008
I'm in Mongolia having just succesfully driven from London, through Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan and Russia on our way and can safley Bouvier describes this style of travel to a tee, still poigniant in its representation of the life one encouters 50 years down the line. Aside from the incredible places and people that the two discover along the way, the real joy is in Bouvier's writting, his ability to see the world in exsquisitely poetic and lucid detail is astonashing, I found myslef grinning with pleasure at descriptions of a beggers breath or the faces of gypsies (ah there crap examples), but there is no point me trying to explain, I haven't the talent his weilds, so, as with everyhting, its better off experiencing it for yourself. Read on.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 11 September 2007
Quite simply the most magical, delightful book I have read this year - intelligent, warm and down to earth. An inspiration for all travellers. My friends will get this one for Christmas.
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