Asian affini­ties

Four clas­sic works of travel lit­er­a­ture.

VOGUE Hommes International (English) - - CONTENTS - By gildas s tewart Photographs françois halard

—Read­ing and travel are ul­ti­mately the same. We em­bark on a novel much as we en­ter a for­eign city, roam­ing para­graphs and pas­sages as we slowly fa­mil­iarise our­selves with the land­scape. Ev­ery step into un­known ter­ri­tory obliges us to de­ci­pher blocks of signs in a lan­guage that es­capes us; to grasp at pos­si­ble mean­ings though most of­ten fall­ing prey to er­ror or mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Pos­si­bly there is no greater plea­sure than to trans­port our body to, say, La­p­land and our mind to Africa: to short–cir­cuit our senses and our neu­rons by jux­ta­pos­ing two nar­ra­tives, two il­lu­mi­na­tions. We could of course quote some of the great names in travel writ­ing ( Pierre Loti, Ni­co­las Bou­vier, V. S. Naipaul, J. M.G. Le Clézio … ), but given the im­men­sity of to­day’s travel li­brary, we have cho­sen four books, each Asia–bound, that we have par­tic­u­larly en­joyed and which we are con­vinced have their place in ev­ery reader’s suit­case. Mar­cel Sch­wob, “VerS SaMoa” ( Éd. oM­breS )

Vers Samoa ( To Samoa ) is a com­pi­la­tion of the let­ters which, be­tween Oc­to­ber 1901 and March 1902, Mar­cel Sch­wob sent to his wife, the ac­tress Mar­guerite Moreno who had re­mained in Paris while he trav­elled to Cey­lon, Aus­tralia, and Poly­ne­sia. Sch­wob, in fail­ing health, was a great ad­mirer of Robert Louis Steven­son ( they were pro­lific cor­re­spon­dents although they never met ), who died of a brain haem­or­rhage in Samoa. Sch­wob’s jour­ney would prove in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult as his health de­te­ri­o­rated. Tor­mented by the thought of be­ing un­able to re­turn home to Mar­guerite, he clung to writ­ing as a drown­ing man clings to a lifebuoy. His de­scrip­tions are in­stilled with melan­choly: “The sea is flat, the trop­i­cal sky pale blue and white, with its thick band of heavy, coloured vapour on the hori­zon, and its suc­ces­sion of forms as though sketched by Michelan­gelo’s hand — row­ing boats the colour of fire, hand­ker­chiefs of black batiste, bright pink flames, black­ened is­lands, and thick banks sliced from be­neath like knives.” Gabrielle wit tkop, “car­netS d ’ aSie” ( Éd. Ver­ti­caleS )

Gabrielle Wit­tkop ( 1920–2002 ) achieved recog­ni­tion late in life, with the pub­li­ca­tion of Sérénis­sime As­sas­si­nat shortly be­fore her death at the age of 82. Her Car­nets d’Asie ( Asian Jour­nal ) is there­fore a post­hu­mous pub­li­ca­tion, bring­ing to our at­ten­tion a woman who for twenty years trav­elled through Thai­land, Malaysia and the most re­mote parts of In­done­sia. Much of her life re­mains a mys­tery; she claimed to have spent ten months work­ing on a na­ture re­serve in In­dia, in the high­lands of Sat­pura, then in north­ern Su­ma­tra “to study tigers in the wild”. In Car­nets d’Asie she vents her dis­dain for Bali, too af­fected in its ways, and her love of Bor­neo: “Nowhere in the world are the storms so fab­u­lously el­e­men­tary. Clouds burst into show­ers of phos­pho­rous, the heav­enly oceans empty onto a screech­ing jun­gle, rivers pour forth above a tan­gle of hill­tops, ev­ery­where there is roar­ing, rolling, foam …”.

An­tonin Po­to­ski, “nAger sur lA fron­tière” ( Éd. gAl­li­mArd )

“From the out­side, we as­so­ciate Bangladesh with the In­dian world and Myan­mar with the south– east Asian penin­sula. In my mind, th­ese two coun­tries form a whole. The same rain and mud for seven or eight months, the same gen­tle im­pres­sions dur­ing the cle­ment months, the same out­ward ap­pear­ance at the ex­act junc­tion be­tween the Indo–Euro­pean and Far–East­ern physiques. Pos­si­bly the states of north–east In­dia should be added to this en­sem­ble of mud and damp gold; I’m not fa­mil­iar with them.” With th­ese words, the young au­thor and pho­tog­ra­pher An­tonin Po­to­ski ex­plains his at­trac­tion for the bor­der re­gion span­ning Bangladesh ( with its Mus­lim majority ) and Myan­mar ( pre­dom­i­nantly Bud­dhist ). His style is sparse yet able to trans­form even a few min­utes by boat into a jour­ney to a fu­tur­is­tic oth­er­world. “The more I travel, the more I use up the re­al­ity of the world, the more I’m able to iden­tify other spa­ces. I look out for them, ready to s lip a l it­tle fur­ther into the im­pos­si­ble of each so­ci­ety.” Am­i­ca­ble and sex­ual en­coun­ters are an es­sen­tial part of his writ­ing ( see also Cités en abîmes, pub­lished by Gal­li­mard ). “We have so lit­tle time ‘on earth’ and we spend so much time not meet­ing each other …”, says Po­to­ski who has spent the last fif­teen years by hill and by dale, after a child­hood shared be­tween France’s Lor­raine and Provence re­gions. His web­site, where he posts the pho­tos he takes dur­ing his trav­els, is well worth ex­plor­ing: www.ud­is­tance.com ( short for “Univer­sity of Dis­tance” ).

“The more I travel, the more I use up the re­al­ity of the world,

the more I’m able to iden­tify other spa­ces.”

PAul th­er­oux, “the greAt rAil­wAy BAzAAr” ( Éd. grAs­set )

“Ever since child­hood, when I lived within earshot of the Bos­ton and Maine, I have sel­dom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” writes Paul Th­er­oux in the open­ing line of The Great Rail­way Bazaar, one of his best–known works, pub­lished in 1975. Th­er­oux has in­deed spent a large chunk of his life on trains, and is un­sur­passed in de­scrib­ing what can be seen of the world from a packed or de­serted com­part­ment, on ex­pe­di­tions dur­ing which months can pass almost with­out set­ting foot on a sta­tion plat­form. With him we board the 15:30 London to Paris, and on to In­dia, Burma, Laos, Ja­pan and Rus­sia. “Asia washes with spir­ited soapy vi­o­lence in the morn­ing. The early train takes you past peo­ple dis­cov­ered laun­der­ing like felons re­hears­ing — Pak­ista­nis charg­ing their sod­den clothes with sticks, In­di­ans try­ing to break rocks ( … ) by slap­ping them with wet dho­tis …”

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