Sun. Sun. Sun. But sometimes you are just stuck at home, in a rut, surrounded by drab weather, and the only thing that travels to warm exotic places is your glum wandering mind. This is a new series about me and a couple of travel books that keeps my brain vivid and at moments mighty colorful.
One of my longtime favorite travel novels is The Asiatics by Frederic Prokosch (first published in 1935), the capricious and directionless adventures of 22 year young American, stranded in Beirut, who manages to hitchhike his way from Lebanon to China, meandering across Turkey, Russia, Central Asia, and India, to finally end up in Hanoi.
He is heading to Japan but like a young Odysseus the direction just a sideline and it is really the journey what keeps him going – not what he’s looking for but what he finds. “If life has no intention of doing you any favors, I rather go out where I can’t be expecting any. Don’t you agree? Asia’s the place.” he hears one his first travel companions say, but the cynicism is still lost on him. For him Asia is not an escape, neither resignation, just a deep longing for something essential, yet to be found.
During his travels he encounters a wide range of people, eclectic eccentrics, lovers and tired expatriates, most of them existentially adrift characters. He gets imprisoned as a russian spy, captured by bandits, falls in love, survives a plane crash, meets death, cruelty and a continent in decay.
Right so you may think he is a naive young man, stumbling from one situation in another, but it’s the naivety of the young, lacking that one truthful answer to why one direction is better then the other. He moves along just because he can, taking corners not knowing what comes next, penniless and willing to take any generous offer to keep him going further along the way.
Mind, The Asiatics is not a fun read like ‘Are you Experienced’ by William Sutcliffe or ‘Go’ by Simon Lewis 1. The tone is set from the start. Asia is in lethargy since the decline of the Ottoman Empire and The West had lost its shine and moral superiority, becoming more materialistic and self-centered. “I tell you young man, every beautiful city in the world is growing uglier by year. You from Europe has done it. You ought to be ashamed of your wickedness”.
And yet it is a mesmerizing story, especially through the colorful and poetic descriptions of the cities and places the young narrator wanders through. A remarkable feat since Prokosch never had visited any of the countries and regions he so vividly describes.
Sure, the Asiatics is often stereotypical and condescending (think Tin Tin in his description of the ‘natives’) and the language is a bit archaic, but don’t let that hold you back, it’s a great read. And for what it’s worth, Thomas Mann, Graham Greene, Albert Camus, even Yeats, thought so too.
Well, if curious, I wont lend it out so you might like to get a copy of The Asiatics over here: The Asiatics: A Novel [Beware! Amazon link].
- It is a silly comparison, I know, but hey, just in case you are in throwaway paperback mode ↩