Book review of 'The Way of the World' by Nicolas Bouvier

Sunday, January 10, 2010


By Nicolas Bouvier

Translated from the French by Robyn Marsack

New York Review. 318 pp. Paperback, $16.95

In 1953 -- that "On the Road" era -- two young Swiss friends, writer Nicolas Bouvier and artist Thierry Vernet, set out on a journey through Asia Minor and eastward, ending up in Afghanistan. A few years later, this book -- now republished in a "classics" edition -- was the result: The text by Bouvier is larded with drawings by Vernet, and both travelers contribute an infectious exuberance. Here, for example, is Bouvier's reaction when he overhears Kurdish camel drivers clowning around on the road: "I felt my heart melt with pleasure, just like the viziers in Arab tales. That was the Kurds for you! Such defiance, such gaiety, a kind of heavenly yeast working away all the time."

Not everything, however, proved to be figs and yogurt. Earlier, in Prilep, Macedonia, Bouvier had noted a sharp difference between the vivacious setting and its downtrodden inhabitants: "Nature renews itself with such vigor . . . that man, by comparison, seems to have been born old. Faces harden and alter suddenly, like coins flattened on a railroad track: tanned, scarred, worked on by stubble, smallpox, weariness or anxiety. The most striking, the most handsome, even the boys' faces, look as though an army of boots has trampled over them. You never see, as at home, soft, thoughtful, healthily unformed faces, whose future is yet to be written on them."

Bouvier, who died in 1998, went on to write other travel books and a novel; Vernet, who died in 1993, designed productions for the stage throughout Europe.

-- Dennis Drabelle

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