The World’s Best Travel Book

By Allston Mitchell, November 20, 2020

Nicolas Bouvier in his FIAT Topolino

Nicolas Bouvier in his FIAT Topolino

"The Way of the World" is a 1950s travelogue of a trip that Nicolas Bouvier and Thierry Vernet took from Geneva to the Khyber Pass in their faithful FIAT Topolino. Bouvier’s account is now famous amongst travel literature lovers and is generally considered to be the best travel book ever written.

There is plenty of competition for the title of best ever travel book: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts; A.W. Kinglake’s Eothen; Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia or Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana have all been cited as the very best of the genre at one time or another. Travel writing has attracted many a famous name but being a genius of fiction is certainly no guarantee of accomplishment as Henry James’s (A Little Tour in France) or Dostoyevsky’s (Winter Notes on Summer Impressions) incursions into the field make clear. Travel writing is an art of its own and requires specific gifts, imagination is one of them but force and depth of character are probably the key to success – which is where Nicolas Bouvier beats them all hands down.

Bouvier outlines the nature of the trip: “We denied ourselves every luxury except one, that of being slow.” He and Vernet did exactly that, setting off at a leisurely pace with very little money –only enough for a few months – thus throwing themselves into the hands of fate. Bouvier and Vernet were no trailblazers, neither were they Jack Kerouacs out for “kicks”. “Taking your time is the best way not to lose it”, Bouvier advises. They were out for a slow and full immersion into the whole business of travelling and discovery: “Travel provides occasions for shaking oneself up but not, as people believe, freedom.” And “Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you.”

The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier published by Eland
– with drawings by Thierry Vernet
The success of the book is mainly due to Bouvier’s literary style. He is disarmingly humane and poetic and comes across as the antithesis to the presumptuous traveller: strangely lovable, completely without guile and very smart.

He treats everyone he meets as an equal, from down-and-out Serbian artisans, to bored border guards, to a Texan consultant pulling his hair out in Tabriz, and restaurant owners with colourful pasts in Quetta, gypsies, Iranian long-distance lorry drivers and the doctors he fortuitously meets along the way who put him back together again. Bouvier’s intelligence is profound and above all generous and thoughtful. Despite throwing his life to the four winds on this slightly madcap escapade, there is something sensible about the man – his critical eye never abandons him.

Bouvier and Thierry Vernet set off from former Yugoslavia in 1953, determined to reach Kabul. They believed, as everyone does, that Kabul was at the ends of the earth, only to discover that – as King Babur (the 15th century founder of the Mogul dynasty in India) reminds us in his memoirs – Kabul is actually the centre of the earth. Bouvier does not disagree – quoting Babur at length.

Their travels start in a bedraggled Belgrade where they eke out a living trying to sell Vernet’s drawings and some articles to local newspapers with modest success. They do earn some vital money on the way, teaching French and even waiting on tables but their needs are modest, despite the endless repairs required by their convertible FIAT Topolino.

They pass through Istanbul but are obliged to move on in haste when they find it impossible to earn any money there at all. In a very multi-cultural Tabriz full of every possible nationality including Azeris and Russians they settle in for the winter, giving French lessons and meeting a stunning variety of locals, like a slightly forlorn Texan consulatant and a priest at a local mission who willingly confesses: “I have all the vices, it’s better that way.” It is a city that has everything, which is all to the good as the two travellers are stuck there for months on end waiting for the winter snows to melt.

Not everything goes smoothly or according to plan. Being forced to stay in Tabriz for the winter pushes Thierry Vernet to the brink:: “. . . returning from the baths, I found him on the point of exploding . . . ‘I can’t stand this prison, this trap’—and at first, blinded by egoism, I didn’t understand he meant our travels.” Vernet wanted to move on and meet up with his girlfriend and get married. Bouvier is philosophical, “I had not really envisaged sickness or love interrupting this adventure, but preferred it to be love”. Bouvier explains: “He was pressing on with his life. I wanted to mislay mine, perhaps in a corner of that Central Asia whose proximity was so alluring.” It is a reminder that the rigours of the trip were just that, rigours: very little money, illness, minus 30 degree weather and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty.

The road to Teheran “, Iran, 1953 photo : N. Bouvier
One of the most surreal moments in the book takes place on the Iranian border. In the middle of the night they come across a customs officer who approaches, shining a light on them: “I am sorry my friends, you must have a soldier to escort you as far as Maku.” The officer then disappears and returns with “a mongoloid midget in puttees . . . as though he’d plucked him out of his slipper.” They continue driving but this time Thierry Vernet is busy rolling cigarettes while: ” the midget is sat on the bonnet, smiling a sweet smile. He reeks of mutton and is humming a little tune”.

The simplicity of the book can also lead you to forget just how erudite Bouvier is. He is very well informed but his local knowledge is not a banner that distracts you, it is all an integral part of the story. His summary of Iran is word perfect: “Iran, the old aristocrat, who has experienced everything in life … and forgotten a lot, is allergic to ordinary remedies and needs special treatment. The gifts are not always easy to give when children are five thousand years older than Santa Claus.”

They arrived in Quetta in Pakistan with a broken-down car and suffering from total exhaustion: “We fell asleep everywhere – at the barber’s, leaning against the post office counter, trotting along in the yellow droshkies which serve for taxis in Quetta; in the cane seats of the little Cristal cinema, soothed by our neighbours’ fans, we dozed off, saucers of tea on our knees, while Elizabeth Taylor – rendered darker and more beautiful by an underpowered projector – was discovering love.” They pulled themselves together with the help of a local restauranteur called Terence who clearly deserves a book to be written about him.

Nicolas Bouvier writing on the terrace of a hotel in Teheran 1953
Bouvier makes it on his own to the Khyber Pass and he sits motionless admiring the “prodigious anvil of earth and rock”, contemplating his trip “drunk on this Apollonian landscape”. He was convinced that his journey had changed him and that he had grasped something that would change him forever – but not being one for self-satisfaction he quickly adds:

“But insights cannot be held forever. Like water, the world ripples across you and for a while you take on its colours. Then it recedes, and leaves you face to face with the void you carry inside yourself, confronting that central inadequacy of soul which you must learn to rub shoulders with and to combat, and which, paradoxically, may be your surest impetus.”

Bouvier continued his travels to the Far East as recounted in two of his other books The Scorpion Fish and Japanese Chronicles, finally returning to Geneva three years later. He eventually self-published The Way of the World ten years after his return.

It is unusual that you come across a life that you would willingly exchange for your own but perhaps Bouvier’s comes closest with his poetic flights and unending stamina and good cheer. The key to the book is Bouvier’s character – he is a delight in himself. He is totally without guile, full of generosity and very very amusing in an understated way.

A huge debt is owed to the translator Robyn Marsack who has created a seamlessly perfect translation that is pure poetry. Discovering The Way of the World is a refreshing experience – Bouvier captivates you instantly as everyone he meets is part of a great human drama – all on equal terms – and where everyone is in on the joke given the right amount of cajoling.

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