Seeing Things

John Bayley

  • The World, the World by Norman Lewis
    Cape, 293 pp, £18.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 224 04234 3
  • Omnibus: ‘A Dragon Apparent’, ‘Golden Earth’, ‘A Goddess in the Stones’ by Norman Lewis
    Picador, 834 pp, £9.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 330 33780 7

The jacket photograph is revealing. A rather apologetic looking man, in sensible but unpretentious tropical attire, stands between two tremendously authentic indigenes, complete with bows and arrows and wearing only a curl of string round their penises. He looks like a sales rep, come to show them a new line in tupperware. But Norman Lewis has always maintained a low profile when it comes to exploring. His admirable series of travel books and travel novels, informative, neatly written, and full of a dry detached humour, make Lawrence of Arabia or Bruce Chatwin, even Wilfred Thesiger and Freya Stark, look like the most tremendous show-offs, auto-destructive as wildlife films on TV.

But then flamboyance – or flamboyant understatement – is usually what travel writing is about. It is a style that protects and passes the time for writer and reader alike. ‘The next day we set off, with some trepidation, along the Mbongo Mbongo.’ There is always a next day, and another one after that, as the reader sits expectantly in his chair and the writer turns the pages of his travel notes. Dryden summed the matter up in his play Aurungzebe, after the hero, disillusioned with disappointments daily renewed, has delivered the speech beginning ‘When I consider life, ’tis all a cheat.’ The heroine vigorously disagrees with him:

Each day’s a mistress, unenjoyed before;
Like travellers, we’re pleased with seeing more.

In travel books we can see more by proxy, even though everything is now becoming much the same everywhere. Will the genre decline as a result of cheap and easy package tours to every cranny of the globe? Probably not. There is a certainty – one might call it Stanley’s or Livingstone’s Law – that as travellers we ourselves will in fact see or notice or experience very little while the people who write the books will appear both to see and go through a great deal.

The most disquieting voyage to read about is that of E.M. Forster’s Mrs Moore. She is a perfectly willing traveller, although she prefers being at home, and looks forward to getting back there. But her passage to India destroys the point of her life. In a sense it works too well – the Marabar caves, those well-known tourist attractions, are for her a real if ironic revelation – but in another sense the sights of travel destroy the coherence and meaning that she has been accustomed to take for granted in the world. Overcome, she dies on the way home. Like all really good art, Forster’s novel gives life the meaning that its message takes away: only inside the words in which it is written does India become extraordinarily real, beautiful and significant. But however much a modern travel book, like the prospectus or itinerary of a travel company, may pile on the picturesqueness, the colour, the scenery, the girls, the exotic food and drink, meaninglessness of another sort than that revealed to Mrs Moore soon takes over. In his quiet way Norman Lewis is an adept at suggesting the nature of this meaninglessness in the world of modern travel experiences, about which he seems to feel, as it were, no resentment. If drama comes it comes in the drabbest possible way: to be raped and murdered by a Buddhist monk in a Thai temple is no different from the same event in the Finchley Road. In Forster’s novel Miss Quested at least had her quest; and her author gave her its meaning.

Lewis himself has written many novels about travel, seven to be exact, but he is too honest an author to pretend they are anything but travel books by other means. The most remarkable is The Volcanoes Above Us, a memorable sketch of the horrors of revolution and repression in Guatemala, which dates from the early Sixties. In the army during the war he worked in Field Security, about which he produced Naples ’44, an account of wartime corruption that makes Harry Lime and The Third Man look silly and made up. After the war he was spotted by Jonathan Cape. In those days most publishers were too frugal to take authors to restaurants. Cape fed Lewis at home, invariably on Irish stew, and gave him the smallest of advances to write a book on Vietnam. A Dragon Apparent was a success in 1951, and led to Golden Earth, about Burma, but not before Cape had first vainly persuaded Lewis to do a book on Admiral Nelson – always a sure seller – and vehemently dissuaded him from writing anything about South America.

‘What about Brazilian Adventure?’ the young travelogue aspirant ventured to ask, to be crisply told that Peter Fleming’s book had sold as an adventure, not as a book about Brazil. Fleming’s two prewar travel books, the Brazilian one and News from Tartary, which is still better, succeeded so well because their author instinctively took to heart the advice of Dryden’s heroine. We cross Tartary on a daily basis, not so much pleased with seeing more as interested in what can be found to eat, what the weather’s like, how the camels come to reveal their personalities. This is the simplest and purest possible evasion of daily boredom, for reader and writer alike. Both the Fleming brothers were apparently afflicted by a secret ennui so colossal that only incessant travel – getting somewhere for the sake of getting somewhere – could assuage that of Peter; while his brother Ian sought relief in an itinerary which, so long as it included gambling, drinking, beautiful girls and homelier sports like fish-watching, enabled him not only to evade boredom but to write thrillers which are themselves travel books by other means. At their best, and however surprisingly, both brothers could write like angels.

Norman Lewis writes like an angel too, but one who has substituted self-effacement for the appearance of innocence. The World, the World is a travelling autobiography which begins with an encounter in an Italian railway carriage almost worthy of Buchan himself. ‘A breathless young Englishman’ flops into the dining-car seat opposite the author and reveals himself as Oliver Myers, an Egyptologist with a genuine belief in the ghouls and djinns of the Arabian desert. Next we encounter, in the most casual manner, the author’s wife Ernestina, who comes from an extended Latin family somewhere in the neighbourhood of the British Museum. When the pair travel to Cuba she elects to stay there, on a permanent basis, while her husband returns home; but of course not for long, for he is soon off to the Far East – Vietnam, Burma, Malaya and back to Singapore. Ernestina’s successor, unmentioned by name, and indeed with no corporal being of her own, is an invisible presence towards the end of the book, when the writer seems to have settled into exploration of the quietest parts of rural Essex. To travel, even if unhopefully, is better than to arrive; but Lewis makes the derelictions of Essex quite as fascinating as any of his more exotic milieux, if not more so. The travelling eye is as acute, as interested and as disenchanted when the body is temporarily at rest in a scene which is altering as drastically, and as deplorably, as are the highlands of Burma or the Brazilian rain forest.

My arrival in Finchingfield coincided with the abrupt ending of an era ... Although the social displacement was a more gradual process, the environmental disruption was more sudden and absolute, causing me to toy with the theory that wars are the greatest promoters of change. The determination to survive and conquer in war provokes resourcefulness and ingenuity superfluous to the need of society in times of peace.

The chemical defoliants ‘created by the Americans to remove the jungle which sheltered their enemies’ could be produced, with a few simple changes to the formulae involved, to allow for selectivity. Owls died; the skies of Essex were emptied of their larks.

My children, born within sight of a river and a pond in the garden, reached their teens before sighting a frog ... in the heart of the English countryside a whole summer can pass, as sometimes it does now, without the cuckoo being heard.

All was not lost, however. Like Voltaire or an eastern philosopher sage, Lewis set himself to do what could be done. He created a wilderness which gradually repopulated itself. As he did so he mused on the curious habits of the London motorists who came at weekends to sit in their cars and survey the pond, fascinated, apparently, by the spectacle of green-encrusted water, their cars facing the same way, ‘like orientals in search of a mystical experience’.

In India pilgrims would have been drawn to this nondescript patch of water by legends concerned with a divine king or a god. Here there is nothing, no legends, no history, no creative essences in the water that can cure sickness of body and mind. In India the pond would have been ringed by hucksters, half-naked holy men smeared with ashes, epileptics, sellers of fake jewels, amulets, charms, saucers of scalding food, cows’ excrement for the treatment of illness, a god with an elephant’s trunk and multiple arms. Indians would have been there for the water, too, but they would have waded in it, sluiced it over every part of their bodies, even drunk a little, their faces imprinted with huge joy. For them this would have been a holy place, where nevertheless you went to have a good time.

The beneficiaries of this silent, almost biblical car-borne congregation are the village ducks, who come for their tribute of food without a trace of nervousness, ‘combining inherited experience with the most delicate avian sensitivity’. Wild mallards mingle with their tame counterparts, the offspring startling their farmer owners by eventually taking flight.

Many of them, like their Aylesbury mothers, are pure white, and there are few more splendid sights on a summer’s day than that of these brilliant albinos overhead, soaring sometimes to become no more than a powdery scintillation in the high sky.

Lewis not only writes like an angel – his eye is as acute as it is effortlessly comparative – but he can switch venues with no fuss and yet with startling effectiveness. While noting and working in his Essex village he was indefatigably continuing his main métier as travel writer – the present book is his 19th. Travels in Brazil, in addition to producing the book-jacket photo I mentioned, resulted in the longest article – 13,000 words – ever to have been published in the Sunday Times, in those days a paper the length and seriousness of whose occasional pieces might have made it almost a rival of the oldtime Edinburgh Review.

‘Genocide in Brazil’ created a sensation, whose benign consequences were by no means wholly unenduring. And yet, as Lewis here more or less admits in his quiet way, a kind of voluntary suicide can itself be just as destructive of a native population. The Kadiweu tribe of Southern Brazil, known in legend as the Indian Cavaliers, can now only be reached by missionary plane on the two million acres of borderland granted them in perpetuity by the Brazilian government for their services in the 1865 war with Paraguay. The rare visitor or photographer found them demoralised by the very isolation they had gained, and begging for scraps on the skeletal horses they still rode. Unlike the Essex ducks they were unadaptive. Lewis himself talked to the single resident European, a missionary, and found him lost in a single, all-absorbing task, the translation of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians into Kadiweu. He had given ten years of his life to this, and expected to finish the work in another ten years. ‘Won’t they all be dead by then?’ he was asked.

‘Yes, they will,’ the missionary agreed.
‘Then what’s the point of the exercise?’
The missionary thought about this. ‘It’s something I cannot explain,’ he said. ‘Something I could never make you understand.’

Lewis, one feels, not only understands very well, but has been able to communicate this and other sorts of understanding to his readers in a way that no other travel writer has succeeded in doing. He is a specialist in communicating his own peculiar sense of the futilities of travel, even when he was investigating in the utmost discomfort and difficulty a business as terrible as the genocide of the Brazilian Indians. He never wastes time on being indignant.

But he is frequently surprising. After all the anthropologists and their disillusionments with tristes tropiques, it is startling to find so experienced a writer and traveller more than half convinced that Voltaire’s theory of the Noble Savage, inspired by a reading of Pedro Caminha’s account of Brazilian Indians from the first voyages of discovery, may have been right after all.

Pondering Caminha’s letter in a later century, Voltaire formulated his theory of the Noble Savage. Here was innocence – here was apparent freedom, even from the curse of original sin. According to the reports of Caminha and other early Portuguese arrivals, the Indians knew of no crimes or punishments. There were no hangmen or torturers among them, and no poor. They treated each other, their children – even their animals – with constant affection. It later became fashionable to deride Voltaire’s theory, but since this is an autobiography I feel called upon to disclose my own opinions upon this subject, and I am persistently and increasingly of the opinion that Voltaire was right.

Voltaire may well have been right; and yet it is still only the past which is a golden age, and Lewis’s account of a photographic foray in Peru with Lord Snowdon is as desperately and dismally droll as anything in Candide. Successful capitalism in Chimbote, ‘until lately a charming village by the sea but now the world’s largest fishing port’, has resulted in 16,000 ex-peasant fishermen living in a wilderness of identical cubic shacks, and reducing every year ten million tons of fish to two million tons of fishmeal. So terrible is the smell that senior staff are under orders to wear gasmasks when they visit.

Few if any of Lewis’s readers can have any desire to visit far-flung parts after reading his wonderfully intelligent and graphic accounts of them. Perhaps that too is part of the point of travel books: the best way of not having to do the thing itself. To my mind, Lewis’s only rival as a travel writer whose modesty has made him almost invisible is the French naturalist Victor Jacquemont (1801-32) whose posthumous three-volume Voyage in India gives the best account there is of the sub-continent and its English rulers. It is gentle, humorous and entirely persuasive. His great friend Prosper Mérimée remarked that whenever he found himself in a difficult situation he asked himself what advice Jacquemont would give.

A fan of Lewis might well feel the same way. His skill is to show how dull travel is while making it interesting. Oh the dullness and the monotony of Angkor Wat, of the stupendous stones of Cuzco, of those innumerable Mochica-Chimu effigy pots, exquisitely depicting every conceivable kind of sexual intercourse. How dull the world is, but how fascinating to read about in a book as good as this. When he left Trujillo Lewis was presented with an effigy, in the form of a frog, stylised to the point of becoming an amphibious abstraction. ‘There remained a face wearing a tolerant, quizzical expression, and the slyest of smiles.’