Monday, August 27, 2007

Babe in pre-Babouzeland

For this project I'm working on, I have been reading lately some travel literature focusing on people crossing Europe and Asia, with a special focus on Afghanistan.
I am actually looking for early-1970s travelogues through the region, since my chronological focus is roughly 1967-1975 as I wish to study a bit of Hippie mythology. Which explains why I went to see the Summer of Love show at the Whitney, but not why I traveled there in the first place (it was for a wedding and also for the joys of witnessing elephant porn!)

Anyway, I am almost finished with Dervla Murphy's Full Tilt, the story of an Irishwoman crossing the continent with her bicycle in 1963.
I had previously read Eric Newby 's A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush, and also Nicolas Bouvier L'Usage Du Monde. Bouvier traveled in 1953, Newby around 1957 or 58. Before my time bracket, but nonetheless useful for my research purposes.
It's been a series of interesting reads, if only because I am usually not that much into travel literature. The only other travel tale I recall reading was Marco Polo, when I was in my early 20s, and that was it.

So comparing the travelers' stories in roughly the same area of the world over a decade is fascinating.
In terms of sheer interest, I think Murphy is the most detailed, Newby is by far the best written, funniest and captivating of the three if only because he and his acolyte set to climb one of Afghanistan's highest mountain without any prior climbing experience, and the Bouvier book alas was a bit letdown.
There's been a huge fuss about Bouvier in France and I was expecting a lot, but the book unnerved me because of the ongoing "international male camaraderie aren't we great at bounding with the Other and escaping Degrading Civilization" theme. Which makes for the narrator as a self-righteous youngster without any redeeming sense of humor, I'm afraid. Mostly, Bouvier didn't seem very interested in the people he was meeting, and most of the ones he's describing were Euro expats. There are loads of concert descriptions for example, but no character is ever detailed and they all seem very generic, which in the case of gypsies is very disappointing.

In comparison Murphy explains as well her distaste for modernization and advancing civilization, but is very honest in laying out her final ignorance about the righteousness of it. She ponders whether it is so wise to break down thousand years of a culture to aggressively transform it in a matter of a few decades, but she doesn't reject outright advances such as schools, hospitals and public services. What's great about Murphy is her sense of description and the palpable happiness that transpire about her various meetings, the interest she takes in the villagers, soldiers, nomad tribes she encounters, and the warm delight she takes in the gorgeous landscapes she's seeing. It truly makes one want to visit Afghanistan!
What Murphy lacks is a sense of continuity and structure in her paragraphs, and clearly she's not a first-rate writer, but the book is very lively and young. She was 31 when she traveled, but the style as a very giddy sense of teenager adventure that is very fresh without being naive.

As for Newby, I happily discovered a writer to my taste. A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush is extremely well written, fascinating in the choice of anecdotes and hilariously funny. The narrator is a very self-deprecating and intelligent Englishman in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh (who wrote the preface). The book has a gripping (and funny!) beginning, a logical development that isn't just a series of chronological events and an abrupt, dramatic [and once again funny] ending. As with Murphy we are not spared the food and lavatory issues, which are in fact fascinating to read. Ever wondered where all the great explorers were doing their business? Not in 5 stars hotels, obviously.
Like Murphy, Newby is also very informative about the area he's traveling to, which makes for the funniest footnotes I've ever read this side of Deleuze, and I am a footnote connoisseur.

All in all, I'm grateful for Newby and Murphy as their book is a great primer for my project, which focuses partly on women traveling alone on the Hippie Trail about a decade later. I've grown up firmly rejecting Hippiedom which in my early childhood translated in rain-soaked Joan Baez free concerts in my native Normandy to support various causes, or Chilean refugees bands playing at the local Socialist Party annual convention.
My well-meaning and secret feminist Aunt cherished a French version of Our Bodies, Ourselves that seemed to be an ode to Tampax, and there were loads of interesting adult comics widely available but all in all, these didn't seem to compensate for the lack of deodorant. Patchouli wasn't a decent substitute, sorry.
Later on, movies of potheads listening to Terry Riley were not much more attractive and the clothes were too atrocious for my inner chic Frenchy-ness. As a punk-turn-Goth teenager (no, there are no picture remaining, I've destroyed them all) I indulged with my Joy Division-Cassandra Complex-Problemists-Front 242 fellow listeners in disparaging les babouzes, a French [somewhat derogatory] term for hippies.
Hence the working title of my current project: Babe in Babouzeland.
We'll see how all of my now 8 (!) readers like it and I'll poll you in a few months for the final title.

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