Yet even as you can feel the pull and pinch of this stripped-down life, in which you can barely look beyond the next step, there is always something pricking at the corner of the sentences that suggests another trip. The first day they leave town, Matthiessen spots a corpse; he has come to Nepal by way of Varanasi, the ancient city in India where dead bodies are committed to the holy waters of the Ganges. Very soon after that, “I nod to death in passing, aware of the sound of my own feet upon the path.” One reason he has come on this trip, we see tucked into a tight-lipped sentence, is that his young wife, Deborah Love, has died of cancer the previous winter.
So as the climb proceeds, it becomes a trip into an understanding of the reality and suffering that lie at the heart of the area’s philosophy. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born just thirty miles from where the travelers pass, and he, too, was a “wanderer,” the author tells us, whose path took him into “the unsentimental embrace of all existence.” He had his first prompting towards awakening, we may remember, when he stepped out of the gilded palace in which his father tried to keep him, and encountered the abiding human truths of sickness, old age and death.
Very soon, therefore, as the landscape begins to clear out–no roads, no watches, no reminders of the modern world–we come to see that the “path” Matthiessen describes is not completely unrelated to the paths of which the Buddha spoke. The journey will be not just a training in attention–and a hard slog–but an instruction in surrender. Matthiessen is not a “seeker,” he reassures us, and he seems much too observant and unsparing to entertain romantic notions of a never-never land. Yet he is honest enough to acknowledge that he hears, every now and then, intimations of another world. “From the forest comes the sound of bells.” And notes that the river the climbers walk along is called the Kali Gandaki, in honor of the Hindu goddess of destuction. Two of the only things he’s carrying along with him are “a dim, restless foreboding” and occasional glimpses of “the lost paradise of `our true nature.’ ”
It is not worth the whole to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar, Henry David Thoreau famously said, after completing his long journey to (and in) a place only one and a half miles from his home; one does not have to know that Thoreau brought Buddhism into America–through the Lotus Sutra he co-translated from the French in 1844–to see that Matthiessen is walking, to some degree, in his footsteps. Why go round the world to count the cats in Inner Dolpo–especially if, like this author, you are not a field biologist who has a professional need to do so, or a porter who can survive only by carrying heavy loads? Yet as he climbs, and everything empties out, he begins to think back to the wife he’s just lost, to the Zen discipline she introduced him to. He starts to look at the very tendencies in himself that he might be able to sidestep or cover up at home. It quickly beomes apparent that this author is in no hurry to gloss over anything in the inner, or outer, landscape. He wishes to push his friend GS off a cliff at one point; he presents himself more and more as just a “haunted animal,” who confesses, “My legs refuse to move and my heart beats so I feel sick”; he even admits to a spiritual ambition, the hope that at some point he will come upon some magical teacher or revelation that will lay bare for him the secrets of the universe.
At one moment, almost shockingly, Matthiessen recalls his eight year-old son back home, and quotes a letter–a heart-tuggingly sweet and charming letter–from the boy, Alex, who signs himself, “Your sun.” When Matthiessen had decided to take off into the Himalaya, his little boy’s response had been “Too long!” and he had begun to tear up in spite of himself. The eight year-old has already lost his mother, suddenly; now, he might reasonably feel he’s losing his only other parent.
Matthiessen tells his boy that he’ll be back by Thanksgiving. Yet as the journey progresses, and as we climb towards the intensities and challenges the book so memorably records, we notice that the days are flying by and there is no hope of him returning in time to spend Thanksgiving with his son. The quest for understanding has caused him to do one of the worst things a parent can do, which is not just to desert a child in need but to break his solemn promise to that child. Matthiessen’s trip, we begin to feel, will have to involve some very great revelations indeed in order to justify that betrayal.
I have met many readers over the years, especially mothers, who can never forgive this transgression, and will be swayed not at all by the fact that one of the hardest things about the Buddha’s devotion to the truth is that he had to leave his beloved wife and son. Yet what moves me, every time I read the book, is that Matthiessen chooses to include in his story a letter and a moment that will show him in a highly unflattering light. Most travelers are guilty of a kind of infidelity when they leave their homes and loved ones, their other lives, in order to undertake a long and perilous journey–and almost all of them (I know as someone who writes about travel myself) choose to keep out from their records the less exalted, human trade-off. We like to present ourselves as conquering heroes, or lone wolves taking on the world in all its terror; we will use any literary device we can to keep out of the text the ones waiting for us at home, or the truth of what is always an uneasy compromise.