Bouvier has been travelling for a long time, he left Geneva in 1953 to go to Yugoslavia. He had no intention of returning and the story of that journey became a book eight years later. He kept travelling, heading out via India and Sri Lanka to Japan, which in time became another book. This latest book is a collection of shorter pieces and essays of his time spent in other parts of the world. Beginning in the Aran Isles, he then heads to Scotland and Islay. We then join him heading to Xian in China and Korea, and finally to his childhood home in Switzerland.
He is in Aran in the depths of winter, walking the headlands and being battered by the winds from the Atlantic, sitting in the pubs being warmed and gently smoked by the peat fires and meeting the locals. He notes the desolation of the landscape, feeling that it is missing a certain something that other places have, but it isn’t something that he can quantify or identify.
Arriving in Scotland with sciatica he has no plan of what to do or see. It is not to be recommended, but it does give him the opportunity to discover things in Edinburgh by chance. Heading out of the capital, he heads east along the coast exploring the ports and to people watch in the pubs. Then onto Melrose via the Lammermuir Hills and finding how the Scots travelled the world taking their engineering skills with them. One rough sea journey later and Bouvier arrives in Port Ellen to discover the delights and drams of the island of Islay.
Leaving the windswept west coast of the British Isles the next essay takes us to the foggy heartland of China, Xian. Here he meets Monsieur X who will be his guide. This man had collected a small library of French books, but the Red Guard had destroyed all bar one of them, the last books, a Larousse was now buried in his garden. They have a good relationship in the brief time that he is in the province, Monsieur X revealing elements of the culture that he really should have been concealing.
The penultimate essay is on Korea. There were once seen as the poor relation compared to China and Japan and suffered at the hands of both countries, however, they were the source of writing, fire and Buddhism for Japan, amongst other things. He headed there in the early 1970s, and it was a place that wasn’t on most peoples itineraries of places to visit. However, it never really got over the war that almost triggers another world war and he finds a country that is crumbling and tired. But in amongst the dust and decay, he discovers a culture that is as rich and magnificent as its neighbours. Finally, he is back home in Switzerland, reliving memories from when he was eight years old.
This is the first of Bouvier’s books that I have read and I thought that it was really good. He has a gentle way of writing almost poetic at times, his keen eye selecting details, like the sparkle of ice on the sea of the coast of Arun, that turn the prose from a sketch of the moment to something with greater depth. He also lets the experiences of his travels come to him rather than seek them out. I do have a copy of The Way of the World that I must read very soon and must get hold of a copy of the Japanese Chronicles too.
Paul Cheney 4/4
So It Goes: Travels in the Aran Isles, Xian and Places In Between by Nicolas Bouvier
Eland Publishing 9781780601144 hbk Oct 2019