Review: The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier

front coverIn June 1953 Nicolas Bouvier and Thierry Vernet finished the exams of their studies in Geneva, and without even waiting for the results, they started a road trip in their Fiat 500 “Tipolino”. Their epic journey would last until December 1954, and would take them through Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan and eventually to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan. At that point, Thierry Vernet left his friend to marry his girlfriend. Nicolas Bouvier would continue his journey, which would eventually take him to Japan, but this book describes their trip to Afghanistan.The book is a monument to their wanderlust.

It was not an easy trip. Although they started with a little money, their intention from the beginning was to earn their money along the way. Thierry would sell paintings, and Nicolas would earn money writing for local newspapers and magazines. They did earn some money this way, but it was always too little, and they took up all kind of other jobs along the way as well.

Moreover, their Fiat was almost comically unsuited for such a strenuous journey: on steep slopes, and there were many of them, the underpowered car struggled, and often they had to push, sometimes with the help of bystanders, sometimes for an entire mountain pass. The car also needed frequent repairs, with all the costs associated with that, although more than once sympathetic truck drivers helped them.

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Their tiny car made an impression on truck drivers everywhere. For example, in the mountains of Anatolia they became legendary:The Way of the World - p76

A tiny car with two runners steering from the outside: this was bound to attract attention. The trucks coming from Erzurum knew about us already, having heard from those who had overtaken us the night before. However far off they were, they greeted us by parping their horns. Sometimes, when our paths crossed, those enormous vehicles going downhill would stop fifty yards away with a squeal of tires and the drivers would get down to offer us two apples, two cigarettes, or a handful of hazelnuts. (p. 88)

In some places they stayed for months. Sometimes because they liked the place or because they wanted to earn money, but sometimes to repair the car, to solve bureaucratic issues, and in one case they got snowed in and had to stay in a town for six months. They didn’t mind the slowness of their travel. As they said early on:

We had enough money for nine weeks. It was only a small amount, but plenty of time. We denied ourselves every luxury except one, that of being slow. (p. 45)

Loneliness sometimes loomed large, so sending and receiving mail was very important. Although the book doesn’t tell us much, it is clear that both of them had an extensive correspondence, and each letter that they received was treated as a treasure. Thierry Vernet’s marriage was also completely planned by mail. The letters they sent clearly made an impression back home:

When I went home, there were many people who had never left who told me that with a bit of imagination and concentration they travelled just as well, without lifting their backsides off their chairs. I quite believed them. They were strong people: I’m not. I need that physical displacement, which for me is pure bliss. Moreover, happily, the world reaches out to the weak and supports them. When the world – as on some evenings on the Macedonian road – is made up of the moon on the left hand, the silvery waves of the Morava on the right, and the prospect of looking for a village over the horizon in which to spend the next three weeks, then I would be sorry to dispense with it. (p. 47, describing the route to Prilep, Macedonia)

This gentle reply to a rather silly remark is telling: they were always willing to see other people’s point of view. This empathy lightens up the entire book. They had sympathetic understanding for everyone and everything, and as a result they could enjoy the local pleasures like a local, they could grudgingly understand unhelpful locals and officials, but they could also cope with poverty like the locals. Still, their wisdom made them the opposite of the naive `all men are brothers’ traveler. They knew how to make friends, but they were wise enough to sometimes be afraid.

On their travels they encountered a wide range of people: fellow artists, local intellectuals who wanted to test their french and have a cultured conversation, fellow musicians, clerics of all religions and denominations, cunning and cynical politicians, truck drivers, peasants, shop owners, and war-scarred souls (by the time of the book, the end of the second world war was only a decade old, and the Tito revolution was even fresher).

Language was never a real obstacle. There were people that spoke some French, English, or German, and they quickly picked up at least a few words of the local languages they encountered. But Nicolas also had this to say:

Let me take this opportunity to malign these little tourist phrasebooks. I had several of them during my travels, all equally unhelpful, but none went as far as the Manuel de conversation franco-serbe by professor Magnasco, published in Genoa in 1907. It was anachronistic to a dizzying degree, and its playful dialogues were of the kind imagined by an author who dreamed of hotel life without stirring from his own kitchen. It consisted entirely of phrases about ankle boots, redingotes and minute tips, plus unnecessary remarks. The first time I went to use it – in a barbershop on the Sava quay, amongst cropped heads and workers in overalls – I opened it at: Imam, li vam navostiki brk? – `Should I wax your moustaches?’ – a question to which one was supposed to reply promptly: Za volju Bozyu nemojte pustam tu modu kikosima – `No, thanks heavens! I leave that fashion to the ladies’ men’. (p. 29; I also had to look up what a redingote is)

Music was also an important communication medium. They had brought an accordeon and a guitar, but often they would just be appreciative listeners to the local music, which is also a form of communication. Dancing was not one of their skills:

We, who didn’t know how to dance, felt the music creep over our faces and dissolve in vain. (p. 43)

They also brought a tape recorder, and they made themselves very popular in some places by recording the local music and then playing it back to the musicians.

The Way of the World - p148Encounters with officials were usually fairly friendly, although on one occasion an Iranian police colonel was impressed a little too much by the two young men, and they were relieved that he was transferred within a week. Other encounters quickly dissolved into absurd comedy, like the local plainclothes policeman in a village who clumsily tried to trick them into changing money on the black market, got a stern `of course not’, quickly confessed/proclaimed that he was the local secret police, and after a few drinks was ready to spill all the secrets he had.

One of the most remarkable observations in the book is not from Bouvier himself, but from a Catholic priest in Tabriz in Iran:

Islam here? True Islam? It’s absolutely finished – even more so now that fanaticism has re-emerged, 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 Imams’ 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, is the last revolt of the poor, the only one they can’t be denied. It makes them noisy on Sundays, but quiet for 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)

The book states that Tabriz is in Azerbaijan, but then explains that Tabriz was reconquered from the Russians in 1947; therefore, Tabriz is not part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, but of Iran. In late 1954, the date of the events in this book,  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah, was still in power, and a popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh had recently been disposed in a US-backed coup because he had nationalised the oil fields. The revolution in Iran only occurred in 1979, but I cannot help but think that the priest was describing the same fanaticism that would lead to the revolution.

Talking about revolutions: Bouvier has this to say about the Tito revolution:

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. Although designed by the most brilliant Enlightenment minds, the French Revolution rapidly deteriorated into an inane parody of the Roman republic, with its Pluvoise, ten-day `weeks’, the goddess of Reason (a street-walker being chosen to personify her at the ceremonies in the Champ de Mars). The same deterioration was observable passing from the warm, thoughtful socialism of Milovan to the Party machine: loudspeakers, straps and buckles, Mercedes full of ruffians, bounding over the potholes – the whole apparatus already curiously old-fashioned, and as arbitrary as the heavy stage-machinery which brings down the flies at the play’s end, with dead gods and clouds in trompe l’oeil. (p. 27-28)

What drove them throughout this trip? First of all, their desire for adventure, but they found – as many traveler before and after them – that travel creates its own momentum; you travel because you travel, and that is reason enough. But they were also driven by a quest for beauty: an unforgettable evening of gypsy music, a lyrical trip through Macedonia, or an indescribably magical moment:

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 too thin and limited to describe what has happened.

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

I believe that both of them considered a single moment like this sufficient reward for their entire strenuous trip.

The book was reviewed in an edition by Eland Publishing Limited, first published in 2007, ISBN 978-0-907871-53-8. The page numbers in the quotes are from that edition, as are the two illustrations by Thierry Vernet. The trace on the map was drawn by me based on a map in the book, and on information from the book text.

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