The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier, Translated by Robyn Marsack (NYRB Classics, 2009)
The quality of a traveler’s observations often depend on his pace, so Nicolas Bouvier never denied himself the luxury of going slow. In June 1953, 24 years-old and just out of school, he left his native Geneva in a small Fiat Topolino to join his friend Thierry Vernet in Yugoslavia; from Belgrade, “with the top down, the accelerator only just pulled out, perching on the backs of our seats and guiding the steering wheel with our feet,” they headed east for India at twelve miles an hour. A year and a half later—through Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—they still had not reached the subcontinent. “The life of a nomad is surprising,” Bouvier writes in The Way of the World, his chronicle of their journey. “You cover nine-hundred miles in two weeks,” and then “you spend six months in Tabriz, Azerbaijan.”
Stopping, staying, taking side-trips: at this pace, a part of the world that has since been torn apart by war and violence opened itself up to Bouvier in great detail. He was able to linger on the minute details of daily life among Gypsy musicians along the Hungarian border, Brits and Baluchis in Quetta, and Afghan truck drivers, as well as the subtle shifts in geography, facial structures and attitudes throughout. In the temperament of a Macedonian coffin-maker, he discovered an explanation for the Slavic attitude towards death, and in the “inimitable blue” of Tehran’s palaces and pottery, the source of an uplifted Persian spirit. And at every stop, Bouvier readily provides social, historical and political context. Yet for all his attention to such details, he is also incredibly adept at summarizing an entire nation or ethnic group in a single sentence. The Turks of Macedonia, for instance: “a civilisation of melons, turbans, gold paper flowers, beards, bludgeons, filial respect, hawthorns, shallots and farts, with a pronounced taste for plum orchards…”
Despite its many maxims on travel—»You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you”–The Way of the World is almost entirely about the people and places visited and only rarely about the travelers themselves. When, more than a third of the way through the book, Vernet announces that he will be leaving Bouvier earlier than they had planned, the reader doesn’t really know enough about him to care (though we are thankful for his excellent line-drawings, which appear throughout the book.) Critics who have made the obvious (and lazy) comparison to On the Road, or labeled Bouvier the Swiss Jack Kerouac, have thus missed the point. Kerouac’s principal concern was with himself and his companions; when he crossed America, he sometimes did so in a matter of pages. Bouvier’s chief interest was in understanding the world outside him. At that young age, he was already an anthropologist, an historian, a journalist.
The personal connection the reader establishes with Bouvier comes from the author’s desire to break free from the familiar—which is, after all, the desire that brings us to read travel literature. As Patrick Leigh Fermor writes in his introduction to the new edition, Bouvier “finds himself totally at home in the heart of heterodoxy and strangeness.” When a Turkish barber in Macedonia tunes his radio to a Swiss station, Bouvier hears the voices of home and wonders “how many roads we’d need to travel and what mischief we’d have to get up to in order to lose that pastoral tone.” The Way of the World thus gets more exciting as Bouvier and Vernet make their way further east. Western ideas lose their applicability and common words change their meaning. In southern Iran, though the mountains remind them of Provence, “it was Provence without wine, boastfulness or women’s voices; in short, with none of the obstacles or the uproar that usually separates us from death.” By the time they have crossed the Lut desert—“an anti-world, its malevolent silence only troubled by the buzzing of flies”—and entered Pakistan, even Persia itself seems a distant memory.
Where The Way of the World ends—at the Khyber Pass, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—Bouvier pressed on: first through India to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he would begin taking notes for his novel The Scorpion-Fish (1981), and from there to Japan, where he would live for more than a year, beginning what would ultimately become The Japan Chronicles, the final version of which was published in 1975. Naturally, Bouvier was proud to note that it had taken him longer to get to Japan than Marco Polo.
Today, the itinerary seems nearly impossible. Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan: these places belong to war-reports and foreign policy memos, not to the notebooks of recently-graduated travelers. Their daily realities are no longer accessible to us, perhaps even to our imaginations. Because of this, The Way of the World is all the more important for contemporary readers. Over the course of the entire journey, little “happens” to Bouvier and Vernet. The car breaks down, they run out of money and can’t find work, there is one memorable accident—but they are never shot at, never robbed, never thrown in jail (though they spend a few nights in one, by choice). Instead, they are met at every turn with overwhelming generosity: Serbs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Afghans and Pakistanis invite them to feasts, offer their homes, share laughter and advice wherever possible. When the Fiat has trouble, there is invariably a mechanic, makeshift or professional, who offers his services. Even with Bouvier’s insightful assessment of ethnic conflicts and political corruption, The Way of the World gives us the Balkans, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia for what they are: places where people live and work, eat and drink, sing songs and make music, tell jokes. “As for me,” Bouvier writes, “what impresses me most is gaiety.”
Dylan Byers is a writer and research assistant living in New York City.