Pico Iyer Journeys

Frederick Prokosch

There is often an element of projection in the young man’s descriptions–he sees Aleppo as “restless” and, just sixteen pages later, a Turk is pronouncing, “These are such restless years!” (serving, again, to suggest a whole world newly put into motion); when he walks into a room full of Russians, the protagonist decides, “They really didn’t know what they wanted; they hadn’t the slightest idea of what might be worth having.” And yet there’s never a sense here that he is reading these places in the light of his preoccupations and assumptions–only of his own tendencies. Indeed, part of what is so magical about the book is that the narrator himself changes as quickly as the scenery; he seems no more settled than his moods do. In most travel books, what guides us is the very distinctive sensibility and presence of the author, who sometimes seems to stand between us and what we want to be seeing; here the author is too unformed to be obtrusive. “In a way you look older,” says an Englishwoman, asking how old the young traveler is, and getting back the answer twenty-two. “And in another way you look younger. First one and then the other.” Two hundred pages, and many lifetimes later, a servant boy in India is saying, “You have a face like a boy’s but a smile like an old man’s!” What they–and everyone else–are responding to is the central figure’s confounding mix of innocence and precocious worldliness.

A highly gifted reader, Prokosch knew how to excavate places from the pages of books. “Cambodia is a haunted country,” he writes, forty years before the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, “full of shadows, full of ambiguous little hints of the past,” all but implying (correctly, as I see it) that the horrors later launched by Pol Pot and his henchmen to some degree sprang not just from themselves, but from something in their country’s spirit and its soil.

But more than that, he is attuned to the whole network of alternative logic that makes travel a kind of parallel universe to our own, in which it comes to seem no surprise at all to look up from one’s hotel room in Peshawar and see a friend last glimpsed in a Turkish prison (“By God! this is a fairy tale” is the response of one such met like this in The Asiatics). I recognize all the places Prokosch describes, and the travelers he meets, with their talk of conquests and the horrors they have witnessed. But I recognize, more importantly than that, the topsy-turvy encounters that are the very stuff and curiosity of travel. The thief who asks the visitor for an account of New York and then turns away when the New York he is given is different from the one he imagines. The Moslem who declares that America has no gods and, on the very next page, asks if he can be taken back to America (growing feral when refused). Is he an American Indian, one local wonders of the young American, “Have you many concubines, sahib, when you go back to America ?” another asks (traveling in Darjeeling, Jan Morris tells a questioning local that she comes from Wales and is asked, “Is it a high pass to get there ?”). It may seem strange–a reflection of the author’s own obsessions–that so many here ask so many others if they are happy or sad. But turn to Iron and Silk, Mark Salzman’s documentary account of being a young American teaching English in China in the Eighties, and you will find one Little Mi asking the author “if I was a sad man or a happy man.”

It is easy to be uncomfortable with the fact that Prokosch is so impenitent about calling the people he passes “savages,” or describing them as “tomcats…haughty, filthy, secretive creatures” and “horribly stupid and violently coarse” of countenance. He was, inevitably, a creature of his times himself, unable to intuit and write in the idiom of the 21st century. But to call him an Orientalist is, I think, to get things exactly the wrong way round: if anything, his problem was not that he was too eager to conquer other cultures, but too ready to give himself over to them. And what he is describing, as much as Meshed and Baluchistan and Malaya, is the very state of foreignness, the delicious unease of being on the road, where an attractive stranger invites you to spend an evening with her and you don’t know what lies behind her invitation, or what lies behind your accepting it. People are strange to one another, on the road more than anywhere.

As a boy, Prokosch tells us in his memoirs, he grew up on books like The Tattooed Countess and The Princess Zoubaroff; he also devoured the works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, the fairy tales of Russia and France and even India (as a dark-complexioned student in Europe, he actually earned the nickname, “der kleine Indianer”). But deeper than that he had the romancer’s soft spot for the savory. In those same memoirs, he notes, with careful nonchalance, that his father was obliged to leave his job teaching at the University of Texas “because of a scandal involving a duel.”

He was never able, one feels, to resist a piece of glitter. Yet even as a young man, Prokosch could see that the essence of any romance is its familiarity with grit. Throughout his travels here, he finds at least as much suffering as beauty and is always as clearly attuned to deceit and horror as to wonder. He has–as most of those around him do–a young man’s ruthlessness as well as his sense of adventure. Thus the Buddhist rest house he comes upon in the Himalayas is “a foul hut” and the nuns he meets nearby are cynical and “button-eyed with cruelty.” The bookkeeper’s clothes in a maharajah’s palace are “foetid” and the young ruler himself “narcissine.” Places glow, constantly, in the light of the narrator’s attention–Himalayan peaks gleam ‘clear as diamonds,” rice field sparkle like “glittering mirrors,” “charming man-made lands to the right and left of us [shine] like lacquer in the sunlight.” But always the scenes themselves are also shown as “desolate and filthy,” the people within them “coarse-featured, thick-lipped, savage-eyed.”

It’s never difficult, reading the book, to spot atmospherics that the young reader must have taken from Hindoo Holiday, or characters who seem to have sprung from the pages of Kipling, or Freya Stark. The sense of eagerness, framed in a larger perspective, puts one in mind sometimes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s later work, A Time of Gifts, his exuberant account of hitching across Europe towards Constantinople as an eighteen year-old, taken in at every turn by compliant girls or hospitable strangers, yet written, savingly, when the writer was in his sixties. But the character Prokosch’s protagonist most resembles, over and over, is Odysseus. Like Homer’s hero he shows an engaging willingness to be detained by sirens and Circes everywhere he goes, and to forget entirely about his destination. Like Homer’s character, he spots goddesses bathing in a river and, in one unforgettable scene, great caravans carrying corpses across the open spaces of Asia, proceeding to the Underworld. Like Homer’s creation, most of all, he sees that the fundamental story of travel is the contest between enthusiasm and realism.

As the book goes on, enthusiasm begins to lose the battle, and the very freshness that carried Prokosch so winningly across the page at the outset begins to fade. This is the plight of every traveler, to tire along the way, to start comparing one place with another (and so not see either whole), even to long for the comforts of home–though in this last regard Prokosch is wonderfully free of any longing, perhaps because he was experiencing all his adventures while sitting in his house. And the ebbing of enthusiasm is generally seen as a figure for what happens to all of us as we get older, and settle into our positions, surrendering the wide-openness of youth. But The Asiatics is uncanny in that it almost seems to describe the course of the loss of youth and one can feel as if one is witnessing Prokosch turn into a different kind of writer before one’s eyes. The excited adventurer who began–“And on the ledge itself we could see the bees among the flowers, brilliant hovering bits of gold in the rising sun”–starts to write more and more of “utter weariness” and when he meets an old friend, he sees that the Indian courtier has “gained in self-confidence and poise” but “lost his freshness, his spontaneity.” It is as if a book that began as a celebration of youth turns into an elegy for its loss, and a witness of its passage into something else.

Five times in fewer than a hundred pages, the narrator uses the word “melancholy” towards the end, and the pattern of the final pages is for the traveler to meet again people he has seen before. But every time he does, the reunion lacks, almost inevitably, the excitement of the first meeting, and a second view discloses sad truths he couldn’t see before. An ambiguous object of desire is revealed as a murderess, cold-hearted in her pursuit of her own interests; the most charming wayfarer met along the way is shown to be a crook, making his happy-go-lucky creed–“Move, move, keep on moving…that’s the way to survive”–something less exalting. Five times the narrator notes that people he has met again have changed; but we sense that the change is in himself.

In life Prokosch would write more than twenty books after The Asiatics and many of them rejoice in the diversions of travel, mixing classical allusions with Arabic settings and countesses who might have woken up that morning in the imagination of Somerset Maugham. Much like his early protagonist, Prokosch himself seems to have made a practice of going around the world, collecting the wisdom of his elders; as a teenager in Paris he sought out Joyce and Gertrude Stein, and later he would come to know Auden and Nabokov and Maugham himself and Woolf (“What is [itals] a novel, my dear boy ?” he remembers her asking. “Have you really thought about it ? What is {itals} this so-called novel?”) One gets a sense of his raffine, often privileged life by looking at the index to his memoirs, which jumps from Aeschylus to Lawrence Alma-Tadema, from Douglas Fairbanks to Euripides. Yet somewhere along the way Prokosch seems to have sensed that the very lack of driving purpose and overarching theme that was the great beauty of his first book might prove a limitation at the end. And perhaps he realized, too, that, like his young narrator, he was better at collecting vivid characters and disappearing in their glow than in making himself heard. Listening was always more his thing than pushing himself forward.

Yet his memoirs end, touchingly, in exactly the place where his writing life began. “The yearning for meanings was the essential yearning of my childhood,” he writes, in a book published when he was seventy-seven. “Like a child I saw an inexhaustible amazement in the air, in the blueness of the sky or the wild excitement of the birds.” His ability to capture that excitement, and to bring those blue skies and birds into even a small room on Elm Street, New Haven–and then other such rooms across the world–meant that his work would live on long after he did. The memoirs conclude with their author, in his seventies, still lying in a hammock, turning the pages of Around the World in Eighty Days, and wondering, with an eagerness he made indelible (and ours), “What strange new excitement the day will hold for me.”

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