“So it Goes: Travels in the Aran Isles, Xian and Places in Between” by Nicolas Bouvier

Hallasan volcano (Wikimedia Commons) Hallasan volcano (Wikimedia Commons)

The great Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier began his career in 1963 with L’Usage du Monde, an account of a journey from Geneva to the Khyber Pass. Published in English as The Way of the World, the book earned him cult status amongst travel-writing aficionados, its distinctive sensibility and supremely elegant prose elevating it well above the myriad other 20th-century travel books featuring well-heeled young Europeans traversing sections of the old Silk Road.

Bouvier went on to publish numerous other works in French, but only two appeared in English translation during his lifetime: The Scorpion Fish, an account of a sojourn in Sri Lanka; and The Japanese Chronicles. Now, however, a new posthumous collection (Bouvier died in 1998) of his shorter travel essays has emerged, titled So it Goes.

 

So It Goes: Travels in the Aran Isles, Xian and places in between Nicholas Bouvier, Robyn Marsack (trans) (Eland, October 2019)
So It Goes: Travels in the Aran Isles, Xian and places in between, Nicholas Bouvier, Robyn Marsack (trans) (Eland, October 2019)

Bouvier was prolific, and there would surely have been scope for a hulking posthumous “collected works” featuring every last scrap of journalism. But his long-time translator, Robyn Marsack, has taken a different, more considered and far better approach here. So it Goes is a slender volume, with just six individual pieces. They are disparate in geographical focus and describe journeys that took place over a span of more than 20 years. And yet somehow there is a coherence across this small archipelago of stories, forged partly by the impression of careful curation provided by Marsack’s introductory notes, and partly by Bouvier’s distinctive and consistent perspective.

Like Bouvier’s first book, So it Goes moves from Europe to Asia, but this time the western and eastern poles are further apart even than Switzerland and Afghanistan—almost as far apart as possible, in fact. The collection begins on the Aran Islands on Europe’s ultimate Atlantic periphery, then travels—via Scotland and China—to Jeju, a volcanic island beyond the tip of the Korean Peninsula.

The opening piece—“Aran Journal”— is the longest in the book, and one of the best. In 1985, Bouvier spent time on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, three astonishingly exposed limestone outcrops which lie off the west coast of Ireland. The islands—long on the receiving end of romanticizing and exoticizing attention from outsiders—were already a well-established tourist destination.

But Bouvier chose to visit in February when there were few other visitors about. Not only did he have to contend with the full force of an Atlantic winter, but he also rapidly succumbed to a raging fever. Illness and ceaseless wind combine to create a strange sense of intoxication in these pages. For Bouvier, the sea air of Aran “unites the virtues of champagne, cocaine, caffeine and the ecstasy of love”. It “sets free those animal spirits in the head which have us surrendering to unknown, hilarious games.”

Wind-fueled fever dreams do not entirely take over, however. Elsewhere his observations of people and place are precise and convincing: a beefy, over-enthusiastic priest at an island wedding “hasn’t the look of a saintly man or even a wise one—more like a rugby coach after a converted try.” Bouvier records with minimal judgement his impressions of his hosts, people already considerably enriched by tourism and temporary immigration, inhabitants of an island—and an Ireland—on the brink of previously unimaginable prosperity. And he conveys in a few sharp lines the impressions of a foreign country that many travellers might instinctively sense, but few can so readily articulate:

 

In Ireland itself I always felt a sense of incompleteness. Something blank, a hole somewhere, like an octave with a missing note, a chessboard where the castles had been taken away.

 

After Aran, So it Goes moves through two pieces on Scotland—describing a road trip through the Lowlands, and a visit to the island of Islay—then abruptly overleaps an entire continent, flashing across the epic space traversed during the course of The Way of the World, to land in a misty Xi’an in the mid-1980s. This section is mainly a portrait of “Monsieur X”, the French-speaking Chinese tour guide attached to Bouvier’s group in the city. It is perhaps the weakest piece in the collection, but it is brief, at just eight pages, and it is followed by “The Roads to Halla-San or The Old Shit-Track Again”, which equals the “Aran Journal” as a highlight of the book.

Bouvier visited Korea—a place “where everything is more modest, patched, basic than in Japan”—with his wife Eliane in 1970, traveling to the offshore island of Jeju to climb the Hallasan volcano. But he waited two decades before writing about the trip. Despite the delay, the account takes a journal-like form—the mode in which Bouvier always seems to have been most at ease—and comes with the sort of fine detail usually recorded in the moment. A cockroach, emerging from the plughole of a glittering washbasin in a brand new hotel is “as red as a freshly varnished violin.”

The Korean section is the book’s final piece of travel writing, followed only by a short memoir, recounting Bouvier’s childhood on the eve of World War II. This is a fine and moving way in which to conclude this collection, but the proper closing line of So it Goes perhaps comes earlier, at the end of the Korean journey. After a gruelling hike up the Halla-San volcano Bouvier and his wife, weary and weather-beaten, encounter a young Korean student who expresses surprise when learning their ages. “I thought you were much older,” he says. Rather than taking offence, Bouvier is delighted:

 

I was happy that this wonderful escapade had left its mark on us. It was like a notch on the assassin’s knife. If we don’t give our travels the right to destroy us a little, we might as well stay at home.

 

Nicolas Bouvier was never one to stay at home, and the six small notches from his own much-marked assassin’s knife collected here, are beautiful additions to his select English-language oeuvre, pieces to be read carefully and returned to many times over.


Tim Hannigan is the author of Murder in the Hindu Kush, shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java which won the 2013 John Brooks Award; and A Brief History of Indonesia.