BOOK REVIEW / A couple of Swiss loafers heading out east: 'The Way of the World' - Nicolas Bouvier, Tr. Robyn Marsack: Polygon, 8.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
IN AUGUST 1953, the Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier and his artist friend, Thierry, set off on a journey that was to take them through Macedonia, Thrace, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They were in no hurry: they had two years ahead of them. 'I had dreamed,' Bouvier recalls, 'of regions such as the Banat, the Caspian, Kashmir, of their music, of the glances one might meet there, of the ideas that lay in waiting . . . '

The book Bouvier wrote about the trip was published 10 years later as L'Usage du Monde: it established itself as a cult book in the francophone world at the time the Sixties' flower-children were wending their way to Kathmandu.

Quite why it should have taken another 30 years to reach us in this lively English translation is a mystery, for here is one of those rare travel books that thoroughly engage the reader; it belongs on the same shelf as the works of Norman Lewis, Colin Thubron and Patrick Leigh Fermor (who, appropriately, provides the introduction here). Indeed, Bouvier's blend of modesty, adaptability and lightly worn erudition, his curiosity and his respect for those he encounters, remind one of Leigh Fermor and his pre-war wanderings across Europe. Both of them evoke a fast-vanishing world afflicted by the ravages of war and tourism.

The writer and the artist travelled in a broken-down old Rocinante of a Fiat that was forever conking out, and once even had to be pushed up the Khojak Pass. Wherever they could, they arranged exhibitions of Thierry's water-colours, gave lectures or sold newspaper articles to pay their way. Bouvier's sensitive ear and his painter's eye conjure up images that thrill the senses, and many of his descriptions linger in the memory: the sight of the mauve mountains around Kabul; the smell of newly baked Armenian bread, or of green tea and sheep's wool in the main square of Kandahar; the sound of a night- watchman singing; the silence of the Baluchi desert at night. No one who reads this book can fail to yearn for a glimpse of the Royal Mosque at Isfahan, or a sniff of the lemon-scented air at Shiraz.

Arriving in Tehran after six months' hibernation in Tabriz, they feel like Auvergnat peasants in Paris, but they dine that night on sheep's head in yoghurt, and play chess with a local chief of police who receives them in his pyjamas. There are other characters: Madame Wanda, the Polish proprietress of the Moda-Palas in Istanbul, who reads Merimee in her four- poster bed, and whose chambermaid and maitre d'hotel sit up while she plays whist into the early hours; Father Herve, a French priest in Azerbaijan, who admits to 'all the vices' and vents his anger on the wolves he goes out to shoot every Friday; and Terence, the homosexual ex- guardsman who manages the Saki Bar in Quetta and is known to his clients as 'Colonel'.

The journey was no idyll, however, and in addition to the transport problems, the travellers were beset by malaria, jaundice and a variety of fevers and accidents, as well as moments when heat and exhaustion brought them close to death.

What particularly distinguishes this from countless other travel books is the author's modesty. He never places himself centre-stage; we view the world through his eyes, yet his own personality never dominates or intrudes; we may imagine the beauty of the landscapes and appreciate the hardships the couple endured, but we are never subjected to the usual ego trip. Travel can indeed broaden the mind, but only the mind that is prepared to be opened. Bouvier's intention is to convey the genius loci, and he does this by absorbing mood and atmosphere, preserving snatched passages of dialogue, and recording the ever-changing geography and humanity he encountered. His book was written several years after the journey, and perhaps this interval helped.

We leave Bouvier at the foot of the Khyber Pass, smoking a hookah, loathe to leave Afghanistan. Thierry, weakened by jaundice, has deserted him to settle down with his girlfriend in a Dutch citadel in Ceylon. Alone, 'confronted by this prodigious anvil of earth and rock,' Bouvier meditates on the illusory nature of human experience. Another world awaits him.