‘I’m English,’ I said

Christopher Tayler

  • To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron
    Chatto, 227 pp, £16.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 7011 8379 0

Some writer-travellers – V.S. Naipaul, for instance – like to project themselves as illusionless figures, immune to prettifying, exoticising urges. Colin Thubron isn’t shy about not liking places: he often endures bouts of melancholy on his journeys and writes about the way ‘a little architectural charm, or a trick of the light, could turn other people’s poverty to a bearable snapshot’. But an illusionless posture isn’t his style. ‘Like a lot of English travel writers,’ he once said, ‘I began with a romantic idea about travel’, and the temperament that got him going in the first place – his ‘rather naive love of the exotic and mysterious’, of ‘the strange and the beautiful’ – plays a large role in his depictions of himself on the page. His books turn on the encounter between the energetic yet dreamy narrator, moving ‘in a boyish euphoria of self-sufficiency’, as he puts it in Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, and the sometimes deflating realities he finds. Once these have made him feel grizzled and disabused he’ll have a moment of human contact or a brush with the beautiful, but either way he needs moods and preconceptions in place to achieve the desired effect, namely ‘a kind of pulling away of illusions both for myself and perhaps in the reader’.

Eton-educated, a collateral descendant of Dryden, and from a military family with warm memories of India, Thubron got started as a travel writer in the Eastern Mediterranean, spending time in Syria (Mirror to Damascus, 1967), Lebanon (The Hills of Adonis, 1968), Israel and Palestine (Jerusalem, 1969) and Cyprus (Journey into Cyprus, 1975). He was in his late twenties when Mirror to Damascus came out, having worked in publishing and as a documentary filmmaker, and knew what he was doing: each of his books attests to a preparatory period of heavy reading, language instruction and patient bureaucratic path-clearing. When challenged by men in uniform he always has the right permit and he’s often well-supplied with addresses of friends-of-friends. But his advance arrangements are kept behind a curtain along with the rest of his non-travelling life. His stories begin and end ‘in the field’, with the narrator materialising abruptly on the outskirts of a city, on a road just past a border or on a plane coming in to land. Then, before the journey starts in earnest, he’ll usually be quizzed by an uncomprehending bystander. In his first book, it’s a man who interprets the view for him (‘It is the grey-haired mountain. Abyad! Its turban is white’) on a hilltop overlooking Damascus:

‘Will you not be going down to the city?’ the man asked suddenly. He had joined me as I was climbing the hill, and his curiosity had not been satisfied. ‘How long do you stay in Damascus?’

‘I don’t know. Several months.’

Wullah! What would one do in Damascus for months? What is wrong with New York?’ (A foreigner is always an American here.)

‘I’m English,’ I said.

He mumbled a welcome. Then, why was I not going on to Lebanon? In Damascus I could see the Great Mosque and the big bazaar in an afternoon. Then I could go to Beirut. He had heard something about the women in Beirut … He said goodbye, saluting with a hand whose skin was cracked like tree-bark, and his legs, as he started down the edge of the hill, were wire-drawn and repulsive, like the sinews of Signorelli devils.

Clipped and florid by turns, Thubron’s writing in his early books already has its characteristic rhythm. The florid side predominates, however. (The Hills of Adonis aims ‘to explore the country where love first saw beauty, and to gather up whatever stray garlands have been left behind’.) He’s not uncomfortable dilating on the character of ‘the Cypriot’, ‘the Arab’, ‘the Jew’ and so on, and though current events aren’t skimped – he was in Lebanon during the Six-Day War, in East Jerusalem not long afterwards and in Cyprus a year before the Turkish invasion – you sometimes get a feeling that they’re viewed as a distraction, as ripples on a pool he’s trying to see the depths of. His descriptions of local phenomena – say, village life in Southern Lebanon – give the books a commemorative, historical value, but there’s a lot of revelling in exoticism. Distressed by symptoms of Western-style development (‘Materialism comes quickly to the Cypriot, and as quickly destroys his qualities’), he ends his book on Damascus on a quavering note: summers in the future might be ‘purged of fever’, but ‘the traveller will not wake again in a jasmine-scented night, to hear the sherbet-seller calling for him to refresh his heart.’

The best things in his early books – notably, his deft, elliptical character sketches – are displayed more impressively in his work from the 1980s, when he found a larger readership during the travel-writing boom associated with Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin. One reason for the improvement is that the journeys he made – through Brezhnev’s USSR for Among the Russians (1983) and Deng Xiaoping’s China for Behind the Wall (1987) – weren’t so easily romanticised: depressed by collectivisation and appalled by the aftershocks of Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution, he has to work harder for his moments of uplift, which come more often from people than from picturesque scenes. The dialogue is less Wullah!-heavy, helped along by his developing an endearing habit of rendering foreign speech in idiomatic but old-fashioned British English. (‘I think his father’s a nob … One of those top cadres.’ ‘I don’t understand your lingo. So I’ll tell you in Russian, fuck off!’) Criss-crossing vast territories, he’s less likely to bludgeon the reader with freestanding chunks of impressionistic scholarship, as he does in his books on Jerusalem and Damascus. And despite some purple patches, usually about buildings, the writing gets much leaner, flexing its descriptive muscles mostly in colourful verbs (trees thronging, patrolling, squirming) and the occasional flamboyant collocation (Tolstoy’s ‘beard-lapped and Pantocratic face’).

Thubron had also launched, in 1977, a parallel career as a novelist, and from Among the Russians onwards he writes with a stronger sense of his own position in his narratives. Though still sparing with autobiographical information (it comes as a surprise when he tells a friendly girl in Riga that he loves ‘a woman in England’), he lets his silences and interests add up to a portrait of the sensitive post-imperial English gentleman abroad: agnostic but attracted by displays of spirituality, uneasy about the origins of his self-assurance and eager to lighten his cultural baggage, which he often speaks of in connection with his childhood. ‘I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember’ is how Among the Russians begins, before going on to describe a classroom map in which the country was ‘distorted by Mercator’s projection so that its tundras suffocated half the world’. China, too, evokes boyhood rumours, in this case of a land ‘embalmed in distance and exotic etiquette … “Have you heard the latest Chinese torture?” my classmates would demand, before twisting somebody’s arm or neck in a novel direction.’ The country’s increased accessibility in the 1980s is ‘like discovering a new room in a house in which you’d lived all your life’.

His deep-seated Englishness is sometimes a source of comedy. In Guangzhou he disgraces himself by buying a live owl in a market, sneaking it around for a couple of days and then releasing ‘this expensive meal’ from a train window at night to the horror of a sleepless fellow passenger. Asked if England is ‘the same as America’, and later if it’s in the same place as Japan, he delivers himself of a tensely italicised ‘No.’ Yet much as the professional amateurism of travel writing requires him to read up on his destinations without appearing too knowing about them, he keeps a wary eye on the assumptions and prejudices he represents himself as having. When a schoolgirl in Nanjing expresses pity for some chicks preserved in formaldehyde, he realises that he’s surreptitiously been carrying ‘a conventional anxiety about Chinese cruelty’ and feels ‘a sharp, unexpected surge of warmth, as if somebody – either she or I – had been absolved’. In the lobby of an expensive Beijing hotel, he observes his personality ‘separating into layers, like something improperly cooked. I was at once childishly ogling and puritanically disgusted. I wanted one of these feelings to engulf the other, but this did not happen.’

Because he rarely mentions the fact that he’s travelling – always alone – in order to write about it, Thubron also seems, from time to time, a troubled, self-exiled figure. He speaks of having ‘a restless inner life and a distrust of belonging’. In China, he notes, ‘private life has eaten into business life, reversing the unhappy Western trend’; to a Soviet tour guide he explains that ‘in my world, older in wealth than his own, trust in the value of material advance was faltering.’ Combined with his eye for religious architecture and ceremony (not to mention his dislike of shows of secularism – even non-religious weddings), such comments occasionally give him the air of a refugee from a cultural cataclysm that’s never fully defined: a crisis that’s led him to seek meaningful experience elsewhere, only to find himself listening to old rock songs in Smolensk or admiring a Rambo poster in Guangdong. Many of his best scenes in the USSR have a correspondingly nervy, mildly apocalyptic quality, as when he visits ‘the ex-fiancée of an English friend’, a woman who’s into transcendental meditation and gets written up as a Muscovite avatar of a character out of Robert Stone or Joan Didion:

Often silences fell between us. Much of the time I felt that she was not in my company at all, nor I in hers. She would close her eyes for long, still minutes, smiling crookedly … I don’t know how she conceived of me. She only fixed me with the mild, half-focused gaze of a dreamer, and although she spoke so much of happiness there was in this look something witheringly sad and lost. Once she murmured: ‘I can’t talk to adults, I can only talk to children,’ and once: ‘I don’t know who I am.’ And she was still afraid: afraid that my car might be noticed outside her apartment block, afraid to be seen in a restaurant with a foreigner.

Elsewhere, he’s wrong-footed in less downbeat ways – by a Chinese computer scientist, for example, who tells him that the problem with mid-1980s Britain is its failure to press ahead with rail privatisation. And when, filled with ‘a deep sickening of everything inflicted by human beings’ after an alienating experience in Minsk, he stops his car by a birch forest and crumbles the earth between his fingers, a chat with a friendly mushroom enthusiast soon enough makes his worries seem ‘ridiculous’. Even so, he earns a few Naipaulian stripes, finding various places ‘brutal’ or ‘violated, meaningless’, and emphasising the gulf between himself and his informants. ‘I was juggling only with my own values,’ he says, ‘not with theirs. I knew nothing.’

Thubron’s permanent outsiderdom and sense of cultural estrangement don’t go unnoticed by the people he encounters, which doesn’t go unregistered by him. ‘Are you travelling alone?’ the uncomprehending bystander figure asks on the opening page of Behind the Wall, and the question becomes a leitmotif, almost a running joke. In China he seems to view it as an outgrowth of Confucian and Communist anti-individualism. But it also becomes – both there and on the journeys recounted in The Lost Heart of Asia (1994), In Siberia (1999) and Shadow of the Silk Road (2006) – a useful prompt for self-interrogation. ‘Why was I so solitary,’ he’s asked by a garrulous salesman. ‘Were things sad back in England, in my home?’ Questioned about what he’s doing in Siberia, and what he expected to find, he muses: ‘I had been looking for patterns, of course … I wanted some unity or shape to human diversity. But instead this land had become diffused and unexpected as I travelled it.’ In Shadow of the Silk Road he imagines conversations with a sceptical trader resurrected from antiquity. ‘I’m afraid of nothing happening,’ he tells him, ‘of experiencing nothing. That is what the modern traveller fears … Emptiness.’ Only madmen and pilgrims travel alone, the trader says; which are you? Thubron doesn’t reply.

Moments of this sort create an impression, in his accounts of his lengthy trips of the past two decades, of a writer who’s aged so plausibly into his persona as to be relaxed about making a few changes. Wryly patrician, weatherbeaten yet youthful-looking in photographs and generally coming across as the prototypical English travel writer, he seems entirely qualified to speak of ‘clottish waiters’ on the Trans-Siberian Railway or an Afghan driver’s resemblance to ‘a ruffianly Talib’. The passing of time makes such phenomena as Soviet Communism more amenable to his aesthetic-antiquarian take on things, which in turn appears more age-appropriate. And he stages some great scenes: an encounter in Siberia with a crankish scientist, for instance, who gets him to crawl into two identical ‘hypomagnetic’ chambers, explaining that one’s non-functioning but the other will induce a spiritual opening-up in gifted ‘cosmophiles’. (Feeling nothing in either, Thubron emerges to find his host inscrutably riding an exercise bike; he isn’t told, and doesn’t ask, which was which.) At the same time, he gives the reader more backstage access, sharing memories of his family as well as of boarding schools and complaining when the facts don’t fit his literary needs. ‘I don’t want to hear this,’ he thinks when a man he’s cast as ‘the quintessential Russian’ fails to take the line he was hoping for.

With his growing inwardness comes a deeper consideration of the myth-making surrounding his destinations. Siberia, he writes, ‘seems less a country than a region in people’s minds’, and he re-uses the phrase in To a Mountain in Tibet, a short, uncharacteristically confessional coda to his accounts of his Central Asian travels. Thubron’s attitude to Tibet is alternately hard-headed and wistful, which serves his writerly purposes well without at all seeming to have been determined by them. Early on, he provides a gently dismissive rundown of Western fantasies about the country from Madame Blavatsky to Lost Horizon, the novel (filmed twice) that gave the world the term ‘Shangri-La’. Tibet was ‘born in violence’, he says, ‘and for centuries it waged aggressive war against itself and others. In this bitter land and climate the people were prey to disease and earthquake, and within living memory worked as indentured labour for an often callous monkhood.’ Yet he isn’t speaking only of others when he writes of a ‘sense of a miraculously preserved past’ at the centre of outsiders’ dreams of the country. ‘Travellers might feel themselves re-entering childhood, or an innocent and unruly unconscious. Others likened the journey through Tibet, for all its mountain fastness, to a descent into the underworld.’

Like Peter Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard, Thubron turns out to have gone to the Himalayas to grieve. When his guide Iswor asks the inevitable question – ‘And you? Why are you doing this, travelling alone?’ – he responds with a joke but tells the reader that he’s doing it ‘on account of the dead’. Trekking in the present tense from Simikot in Nepal to Mount Kailas, a pilgrimage site in Tibet, he combines a conventional travel narrative, studded with mini-disquisitions on Tibetan religion and the history of Western exploration in the area, with neatly dovetailed flashbacks. The immediate answer to Iswor’s question is the recent death of Thubron’s mother, ‘the last of my family’, and details of her life – ‘on her wedding day she had led a pet Dalmatian on a silk leash’ – drift to the surface in the course of the book. A name on a map stirs up memories of his father, dead since 1992, who kept scrupulous records of his hunting trips as a young officer in Northern India in the 1920s. After meeting some monks who forswear possessions and inheritance, Thubron describes his parents’ letters and his father’s homecoming after the war. Finally, dizzied by the thin mountain air, he remembers getting the news of his older sister’s death in an avalanche in Switzerland in 1959.

Thubron doesn’t expect, and doesn’t experience, consoling revelations on his unbelieving pilgrimage, which he makes alongside genuine pilgrims, pious Hindus from Southern India and elsewhere, several of whom die from altitude sickness while circling the holy mountain. Having been urged by a Buddhist monk in Kathmandu to dedicate his journey to ‘those who have died’, he lights some incense sticks at the head of a sacred pass and later contemplates the poet sage Milarepa, who’s said to have left his village ‘clutching his mother’s bones between his clothing and his chest, like the very signature of transience – his own and hers’. But the place’s meanings aren’t his, and ‘a journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.’ All the same, he tells himself, ‘it’s my profession’, and he writes with impeccable professionalism of the landscape he traverses – of mobile phone shops ‘dourly in place’ in Tibet and novice monks collecting offerings in a Budweiser box while Chinese medics process people for swine flu. Overseen by two old women with a flask of tea, a young pilgrim prostrates herself after every three paces. In north-west Nepal, ‘a cruel region in a poverty-stricken land’, a local teacher speaks of his daughter in Alabama.

Between the reporting and the personal memories there’s a quantity of stuff worked up from books. As always with Thubron, this is the least convincing side of the performance: not because he’s dealing in hand-me-down material, though I’d guess that Tibetologists would find things to quarrel with, but because of a suspicion that he doesn’t so much engage with it as push it through the mesh of his style and sensibility. Of Kailas’s gradual identification with the Mount Meru of Hindu cosmology, he writes:

Tiers of gods and spirits ascended the mountain in an ever more powerful elite. Its scarps flowered with jewels, herds of sacred elephants barged through its sandalwoods, and its air rang with celestials’ song. On its lower planes the caves gleamed with the piety of hermits, and in fragrant forests the souls of the dead awaited rebirth. The mountain enfolded all extremes. From caverns beneath it, grim titans emerged to do battle with the gods, and the abyss of hell yawned below.

Functionally indistinguishable from his set-piece descriptions of architecture, this seems more an occasion for exotic prop-wielding and colourful verb deployment than an attempt to transmit something substantive. Much of his information on these matters can also be found in Charles Allen’s A Mountain in Tibet, which deals more wittily with crazed explorers like Henry Savage Landor and Sven Hedin than Thubron has time for.

Yet substantive points aren’t what Thubron is about. He is an English travel writer, one of the last types of writer on earth with a licence to trade openly in the strange and beautiful; a conclusive inconclusiveness is what counts. He has also expanded his narrative repertoire, and the emotionally charged recollections in To a Mountain in Tibet break up his writing’s usually homogeneous surface with one-line paragraphs, shifts of tense and words addressed to his sister. With his earlier books fresh in mind, it’s possible to persuade oneself that these might be a large clue to his work’s private meaning. (‘New life may take old patterns,’ he writes in The Hills of Adonis of the impersonal afterlives suggested by ancient religions, ‘but never again does it reproduce the mind, the look, the cadence of a voice, as it once had been. And we, who love the individual, recoil.’) ‘They redeem the world by the mystique of words,’ he says of Tibetan prayer flags, and some version of that mystique is clearly at work in him. As an encapsulation of Thubron’s concerns, and maybe those of the strange tradition he’s heir to, however, I found myself preferring his riposte to the apostle of cosmic wavelengths in Siberia: ‘I’m not cosmophobic, I thought grumpily, I’m just English.’