About two weeks ago, I went for a small bicycle tour in the countryside around Geneva, enjoying a warm sunny Sunday afternoon in February, something so impossible it sounds wrong even as I am writing it. I passed by a road I’ve passed by many times, by an old and respectable graveyard, in one of the most respectable communes of Geneva – and by respectable, here, I mean more than well of, you only have to look at its golf course. I knew that in this quiet and well polished graveyard lies one of my favourite authors, if not my absolute favourite author, Nicolas Bouvier. It is ten minutes away from my house (though my neighbourhood is far less fancy) – yet I had never been there. I don’t know why, probably I was intimidated. Or not prone to sentimentalism, after all, graveyards and tombs are much less important to me than books, the real legacy.
In any case, this time, I entered. And went to say thank you.
Because I don’t think there is one author (and writer, and photographer, and iconographer, and…) that shaped my life as much as Nicolas Bouvier.
He was born in Geneva on March 6 (which incidentally is also the date I’m writing this), 1929, in a respectable family. He studied there but was – since childhood – obsessed by the idea of travel, of far of places and discoveries. Only this turned out into more than a few meanderings over an atlas in an attic. And, after a first escapade to Istanbul, he left Geneva in 1953 with his friend Thierry Vernet, a painter, on an old and quiet frankly temperamental Fiat to go to Belgrade, and from there, all the way to India.
From this 2 year long journey through Asia, he wrote a book called “l’usage du monde”, “the ways of the world” as it is translated, which also contains the ink drawings from Thierry Vernet.
This is the book that always comes to mind when I have to reply to “what is your favourite book”, “what book would you take with you on a desert Island” and other horrible questions.
Because it is everything: First, it is a fascinating story about two young men of 25 going into a journey almost nobody had done before and that you couldn’t do any more nowadays (they crossed Irak, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, amongst other, making this book also a testimony of an era of relative peace and stability in the middle east, a sad reminder of a lot of things destroyed since that time). They have a glorious amount of travel misadventures, like car problems in the middle of the deserts, getting stuck for a whole winter by the snow in Tabriz, Iran, trying to earn a minimal living by writing and painting in Yougoslavia, Istanbul and everywhere else. They had a number of great encounters, from gypsies and truck drivers to painters and famished intellectuals of the communist Balkans, and so much more.
It is marvellously well written, it is one of the truest books I’ve ever encountered, because it stems from a conscious desire of Bouvier to “become transparent”, to stand as little as possible in the way of the reality of the experiences lived. He is lyrical, but never romanticises the reality he is faced with. He manages to translate the feelings, the lights, the smells, the noise of countless atmospheres crossed, from summer in Yougoslavia to winter in Iran.
It is so much more than a travel-book, even if Bouvier would say it is mostly that. He was happy to be a travel-writer. It is a book about the experience of beauty, the search of self in a changing world, the quest for artistic validity and honesty, and at the same time a wonderful story.
It has shaped my views of travel, as a way of undoing, an exercise of subtraction: “Travelling provides occasions for shaking oneself up but not, as people believe, freedom. Indeed it involves a kind of reduction: deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper, the traveller finds himself reduced to more modest proportions – but also more open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight.” As a necessity, as well, for I don’t know if I would have had the same drive to actually go out into the world, to travel as much, had I not fallen in love with it in Bouvier’s books before. And a necessary reminder of what it would teach me, and what it has indeed taught me.
So I owe a lot of the most striking moments of my life, at the top of public buses in rural India or even just at home reading, to this man of the world, buried a few kilometres away from where I live now. And I felt like saying thanks, two weeks ago but indeed any other day, for what he has brought to the world.
To quote him, for a change – though I have not been able to find the translation for that paragraph – but it is about the moments of intense beauty that you sometimes experience and their importance as the foundation of existence:
“Finalement, ce qui constitue l’ossature de l’existence, ce n’est ni la famille, ni la carrière, ni ce que d’autres diront ou penseront de vous, mais quelques instants de cette nature, soulevés par une lévitation plus sereine encore que celle de l’amour, et que la vie nous distribue avec une parcimonie à la mesure de notre faible cœur”