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The Way of the World (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – October 27, 2009
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From Library Journal
In 1953, the author and an artist friend left Yugoslavia and worked their way across Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Bouvier's recollections of their 18 months of travel captures the timeless nature of what happens when different cultures interact regardless of the events surrounding them. Originally published in 1963 under the title, L'Usage du Monde, the book became a cult classic in France and was translated into several European languages. Because it covers countries that have become accessible to all peoples through world events and the media, it seems appropriate that the book is available for the first time in English. For large travel collections.
- Elizabeth Loftus, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Kirkus Reviews
Lyrical reminiscences of a footloose journey from Yugoslavia to India, undertaken 40 years ago by the then-25-year-old author of the enchanting The Japanese Chronicles (1992) and an equally young companion. Traveling in a distinctly fractious Fiat, the two friends, appealingly optimistic and resourceful, make their way ``on the cheap,'' settling in at peasant inns, earning their expenses by writing articles, delivering lectures, and organizing exhibitions. Perhaps because of their winning ways, they attract a colorful band of cohorts as they wend their way eastward--beggars and brigands, muezzins and Marxists. In recounting his adventures, Bouvier frequently provides thought-provoking insights: At one point, discussing the shortcomings of US humanitarian aid programs, he observes that ``practicing charity demands endless tact and humility''--qualities he finds lacking even in well-intentioned Americans; later, he points out that, ``like a mirror, an intelligent face is the same age as what it reflects.'' Wherever he travels, Bouvier displays an artist's eye for the image-conjuring detail: a moustache ``like a furled umbrella''; a Tabriz cinema in which the projectionist, eager to get home, speeds up his machine until ``the story would take on a disturbing pace: caresses looked like slaps, ermine-clad empresses hurtled downstairs.'' Throughout, Robyn Marsack's translation from the French is a model of lucidity and smoothness, capturing the author's unique blend of humanity and humor, and, as a bonus, there's a gracefully appreciative introduction by travel-writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Travel writing to be cherished and reread. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The strength of the writing is all in the understanding and insightful nature of the descriptions of the daily doings. It's not exciting or hair-raising, though certainly it held my interest throughout. Quite a few times I read a paragraph where I stopped and commented to my sister or wife, "Listen to this". And then just read aloud that snippet.
The author and his buddy were a journalist and an artist taking a year long journey in a small and problem prone Fiat auto of the time. And stopping in towns where they would stay for a night or a couple weeks or even longer. They were trying to raise money from their work as they went along. Everybody understands that need, so they were on a more level footing with those who they encountered.
This is certainly a fine book, and I'd recommend it to any thoughtful person.
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.