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On the Road... but East...
on 26 March 2011
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)