In his last book, describing his eight month-long, war-haunted journey across 7000 miles of the Silk Road, Thubron’s most intriguing stylistic innovation was to give us five interpolated passages, in italics, in which an imaginary old merchant of the area cross-questions the contemporary traveler as to his intentions and real feelings. “I’m afraid of nothing happening,” the narrator explains, in answer to the first such question, “of experiencing nothing” (the novelist in Thubron rises with ease to the charged intimacy these exchanges call for). “That is what the modern traveller fears (forgive me). Emptiness.”
Later, like a baleful prophet, the make-believe merchant says, “Looking back, you will see the cities become a long procession leading to nothing” and ascends to a fearful vision of what a traveler’s life can amount to, if he merely goes on collecting moments and moves further and further from a simple belief in any one truth. Asked “What is this fascination with foreign religions? Is it because you’ve lost your own?” the Thubron figure admits, “Now there are too many dead. Those you love take away a part of you, the self you were with them. So the Pure Land seems beautiful in its way, as if it were a place we once had but was lost.” Time is passing, he suggests, and he longs somehow to preserve or sustain hope for all the people that he’s lost.
The five passages were short, taking up barely a page each of the book’s 344 pages, and delivered with typical discretion. But they seemed to be taking the author into new territory, as he began to challenge himself as searchingly and intensely on the non-fictional page as he had done in his novels. It was a different kind of difficulty he was sharing than the physical kind that is so modestly worn across his pages, and it suggested a new kind of restlessness, even with the form he’d taken on and mastered.
There has always been an undertow of wistfulness, even melancholy in Thubron’s works of non-fiction, and even as he has now completed a near-definitive evocation of the world that stretches between Beirut and Vladivostock, he has never really told himself (or us) why exactly he made all his journeys. When V.S. Naipaul returns, again, and again, to Africa or India, we can feel that he is trying to sort out some question and tension in himself, between, perhaps, the person who was once ruled by European colonizers and the England in himself; when Thubron takes off, we’re sometimes tempted to ask (as the imaginary merchant does) why he is putting himself through such hard travel, deep into his sixties, and taking himself to places of such difficulty and remoteness. Travel is no mere lark or adventure for him, clearly, and for so serious and scrupulous a wanderer even curiosity does not seem explanation enough.
In many of his books, the people he meets along the way, often historical orphans in some form, ask him a variation of the questions he’s asking them, about love or religion or a larger sense of purpose. He often dodges them, he confesses, or suggests that he wishes himself the answers were not so hard to put down. “I want to go unquestioned,” he writes on the second page of Shadow of the Silk Road, as he passes himself off among Chinese pilgrims as a teacher (a highly plausible cover) and begins to make up a “family back home” to deflect insistent questioners. Yet soon, of course, he begins giving us those passages in italics in which he asks the same questions of himself.
In To a Mountain in Tibet, this most private of scholar gypsies brings these mysteries even closer to home. If, in his last book, he tunneled unsparingly into the empty spaces and small abysses in his own motivations, putting Colin Thubron through a kind of interrogation, in this small pendant to it he shares something of each of his family members in turn, as he climbs towards the new life that Kailas traditionally represents for believers. Thirty pages before the end, as he prepares for the final ascent to an 18,600-foot pass—the climax of the journey, which leaves many travelers light-headed and some dead—suddenly Thubron sees the 5000-foot “near-vertical precipice” of Kailas likened in a guidebook to “the north wall of the Eiger from Grindelwald.”
It was in Grindelwald, he tells us, in three swift, penetrating sentences, that his sister died, in an avalanche, while skiing at the age of twenty-one. For years thereafter Thubron could not bear to climb in mountains; with her he’d lost something of himself. It is characteristic of him that, even at this most revelatory of moments, he is delicate and subtle, refusing to distract us from the larger dramas all around him. But this, the final of his flashbacks–meted out across the narrative with perfect artistry—tells us something of what has been pulsing beneath the book’s surface all along. To a Mountain in Tibet belongs on a very small shelf of works that offer a clear-eyed and compendious version of Tibet and what it’s like to travel there these days; it also, in the end, becomes a great account of a pilgrimage that is never quite so vicarious as it seems.