Pico Iyer Journeys

Frederick Prokosch

In effect, therefore, The Asiatics becomes a portrait of a state of mind–and one in which wandering and youth come to seem synonymous; it is almost a Platonic distillation of the states that travel brings on, not least the fact that it pitches you into a realm of romance where nothing happens for a reason (reason, the sense of understanding, being one of the things you left behind at home), and anything could loom around the next corner. Now the traveler is set upon by brigands, now by bored beauties. Everyone is eager to offer him money or shelter or love, often for reasons far beyond his reckoning. The narrator goes back and forth constantly between walled gardens and open spaces, and when at one point the hero is locked up in a Turkish prison, looking out on a bordello, he seems to have attained the archetypal position of youth.

Prokosch is clearly a laureate of longing, as well as of expectancy; his strength is in evoking not just lanterned streets and the sound of bells in the night, dusk “dripping like gray moss from the trees” and “the celluloid rustling of insects,” but also in conjuring up a constant state of provisionality (one moment contradicts the last as readily as the main character does). The Asiatics is a book of atmospheres more than of events (let alone emotions). Yet what makes it stand apart from the works of Hermann Hesse, say, or Jack Kerouac, the other talismans of youth who might seem to be its cousins, is that this narrator is less a seeker than a collector. He’s not going anywhere; he’s just happy to pick up the colorful characters and pieces of philosophy and moods of transport that linger along the road. Being equally interested in truth and beauty and diversion, he’s equally uninterested in all of them, too.

Prokosch’s larger achievement–and this is one of the things that makes him seem clairvoyant–is to evoke a whole scene of continents on the move, large numbers of foreigners, from every side, of every stripe, moving across the great spaces of Asia, with as little sense of what they’re after, often (geographically or otherwise) as our protagonist has. It is almost as if the Silk Road of old were filled now with a new kind of traveler, dealing in stories or nuggets of disenchanted wisdom (for which this hero has a decided weakness). Stray aristocrats, communists, priests and just drifters, all float across the canvas, as in one of the dwarfing mystical landscapes of Nicholas Roerich.

It’s easy to forget now that the 1930s were a golden age of travel; World War I and the Depression had receded from memory a little, and planes were making the world seem open as it had never been before. In England alone, Peter Fleming, Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were taking off for Kashmir, China, Abyssinina and Mexico respectively, and Somerset Maugham, in his Gentleman in the Parlour, was all but laying down parts of Prokosch’s itinerary. In fiction, a popular novelist like James Hilton was more or less enshrining the sense that, for the first time in history, Westerners could visit Himalayan kingdoms that had always been regarded as impenetrable; The Asiatics seems to owe not just its plane crash and its snowbound lamaseries to Lost Horizon, but, more profoundly, its sense of how possible it is, in a world of expanded horizons, to fall into the unfathomable.

This wasn’t an accidental discovery on Prokosch’s part; he had a conscious sense of a world in movement (the same movement that Robert Byron extols in his 1927 book, The Station), and he made it his business to try to fashion a new kind of art that would match this new kind of life. “My greatest desire,” he would say, “is to take part, however humbly, in the resurrection and growth of a truly international literature, an approach to writing which exceeds national limitations, both in manner and mentality.” One of the most forceful characters the narrator meets here is an Armenian who calls himself a “patriot-hater,” determined to combat nationalism.

Always highly cultured and very elevated, Prokosch would say in his memoirs that his book was influenced in part by Malraux and Colette’s La Vagabonde; he would place it in the picaresque tradition of Voltaire and Swift and Defoe. Yet in some ways his interest in place is too consuming (and his hold on wisdom too shaky) to merit a place in the tradition of instruction manuals; really, he was exulting in travel for travel’s sake. These days, it is almost impossible not to see him as a forerunner of those young wanderers who, three decades later, would carve out an entire Underground trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu, by way of Afghanistan.

It must be said at this point that the bits of worldly wisdom on the subject of Asia the book is eager to pass on do not seem very worldly or very wise. “A true Asiatic is never very happy,” a Persian prince languidly pronounces–seeming, as the narrator often does, to be talking mostly of himself–and a gnarled Buddhist monk encountered in the Himalayas declares, “In Asia we believe that selfishness is the only way to gain peace” (a notion that will come as a surprise to those of us who thought that Hinduism, Confucianism and especially the Buddhism of which this seems to be a would-be synopsis, are mostly about the dissolution of the self). The one aphorism that does stand up to scrutiny is the Persian prince’s final summary, “The thing about Asia is its vagueness, really.”

This wasn’t a function of Prokosch’s youth; even thirty years on, in his novel The Wreck of the Cassandra, he is having a character, on page 5, declare, “All this talk about inner serenity, all this Asiatic poise and delicacy–well, it’s nothing but a veil to hide the horror underneath.” Rather, I think, it’s a reflection of the fact that he was always better on the ground than in the air; his boyish sense of wonder is consistently more compelling than his longing for sophistication. And as a guide to how Asia really looks and feels–the horsemen in the snow, the cobblestones under moonlight–his book is almost impossible to improve upon. The Aleppo he describes is not the Aleppo I saw four years ago, but I wish it had been; his intuition seems closer to the heart of the real Aleppo than my experiences do. And when he goes to my parents’ homeland, he not only catches the clatter of Indian roads, the cacophony of bullock-carts and trucks and bicycles, as well as any traveler going there today might, he throws off, in a casual apercu, the fact that Indians regard their roads more as gathering places than as thoroughfares. This not only explains why the country is so exasperating for anyone who wants to get anywhere (it’s enchanting for those who just like dallying en route); it also begins to suggest why Indian conversations are infuriating for anyone who is hungering for conclusions. It also, of course–as so much here–tells us how to read the book we’re paging through right now.

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