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The Perfect Traveler

1.

Then northward with the spring into Kashmir,” begins a paragraph in Frederic Prokosch’s 1935 book, The Asiatics*:

Past valley after lovely valley, shepherds and their flocks moving across the greenery in the day, men squatting by their hillside fires in the night. Soft-lipped boys with enormous turbans shrieking at us from their dark alleys, black-lidded girls with roses in their hair bringing us ices.

A page later, the young narrator is being shown up to a room in Peshawar, along the Afghan border, noting the “great brownish stains” on the wall, getting bombarded by mosquitoes. Down in the coppersmiths’ area of the marketplace below, old men in green turbans sit near young men with “collyrium-painted eyes” and from every side comes the “chah, khach, kukha” of opium eaters. Everyone, the wanderer tells us, “looked hungry; not for food, but for something else.”

When Prokosch wrote those words, evoking in particular detail the look and smell of Peshawar—and, in later pages, of Rangoon and Saigon and Ladakh—he had not been to a single one of them. He was, in fact, a twenty-nine-year-old research fellow at Yale who had just completed a doctoral thesis on “The Chaucerian Apocrypha.” As a boy, the young painter and poet from Wisconsin had spent a year in Austria and Germany—returning to Texas in 1915 with better German than English; and his father, a professor of Germanic philology who would later become Sterling Professor at Yale and president of the Modern Language Association, would keep the house filled with cosmopolitan flavors. Yet as he sat in his room on Elm Street in New Haven, poring through atlases and travel diaries, and writing only from imagination, suddenly (as he recalled, almost fifty years later, in his 1983 memoir, Voices) the young Prokosch saw himself walking through the rain along the road past Ba’albek. “Day by day,” he remembered,

this vision of a continent grew more vivid in my mind. It kept growing in the darkness, it seeped into my dreams. I’d wake up in the night with a sudden glimpse of a tropical city, a shabby old hotel, a picnic by the Brahmaputra, and I’d turn on the light and jot it down quickly.

The vision was so intense—so lived in, one might say, so possessed—that to go to any of the places Prokosch describes today is to find that he caught them better, sight unseen, than most of us could manage on the spot. The single most implausible word in The Asiatics was that startling disclaimer on the title page, “A Novel.”

On the surface, the book simply tells the story of a young American, adrift in Beirut, who manages to hitchhike his way across Turkey, Central Asia, and India, and ends up near Hanoi. Passive as many a wayfarer is, the narrator nevertheless records, for example, spices and jewels and “dried citron and figs” in the marketplace in Tehran and, more than that, he seems to confront everywhere a “labyrinth of sunlight and shadow.” Much as a travel writer might, he encounters Nestorian priests and self-proclaimed Assassins, gets put up by a Persian villager who claims to have been Freya Stark’s lover, and is ushered into the court of a Siamese prince and an Indian maharajah. Indeed, he has hardly embarked upon the journey before he runs into an opium smuggler, a guardian of a harem, and (the first character in the book) a man who tells him, “Every beautiful city in the world is growing uglier year by year.”

As soon as The Asiatics was published, in 1935, it was, not surprisingly, a runaway success, ultimately translated into seventeen languages and turning its young author, as his friend and champion Gore Vidal recalled, into a figure of almost Byronic panache. Thomas Mann, a friend of Prokosch’s father, pronounced the book “astonishing” and André Gide called it “unique among novels and an authentic masterpiece.” Camus noted, perceptively, that it “invented what might be called the geographical novel.” Even those with no knowledge of the well-connected author were stirred (and one of the first congratulatory telegrams Prokosch received, from a publishing house in London, was signed by T.S. Eliot). Wise beyond his years, and clearly unabashed in his imaginings, the hitherto unpublished writer seemed set for life.

By that time, Prokosch was already at King’s College, Cambridge, pursuing a life of letters and semi-permanent exile. He wished “to avoid the vulgarization of money and publicity,” as he put it—and in that aim, he may have succeeded more than he would have liked. He quickly became a talismanic figure for wanderers and professional expatriates—Vidal remembers a cult of Prokosch in the US Army in the Forties, and the great American chronicler of Japan, Donald Richie, has said that he was moved to travel, as a boy growing up in Lima, Ohio, by reading Prokosch’s early work. Yet to most Americans, his exquisite, almost perfumed world seemed remote. World War II put an end to the exotic romances of the Thirties (Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth had come out in 1931, Lost Horizon in 1933), and even as Prokosch made it at last, much later, to Damascus and Isfahan and Agra, he fell increasingly out of public view.

Prokosch followed up his initial surge with a similar work of fiction, The Seven Who Fled, in 1937, about seven Europeans propelled out of Kashgar by local unrest, and then, in 1939, with The Night of the Poor, about a midwestern boy hitchhiking around America. “Landscape is a state of the spirit,” he wrote in The Seven Who Fled, more or less voicing his personal creed, “it is a constant longing for what is to come, it is a reflection incomparably detailed and ingenious of what is everlasting in us, and everlastingly changing.” That book was translated into French by Marguerite Yourcenar, and Prokosch’s first book of poems, The Assassins, in 1936 was praised by W.B. Yeats as “astonishing …the talent of a real visionary, and often magical.”

Yet even as Prokosch was living out the adventures he had once only imagined—spending time in Portugal and Stockholm, in Italy and Hong Kong (in later life he settled in Grasse, in southern France, where he collected butterflies and put out handmade editions of poems he loved)—he was known, when known at all, until his death in 1989 as the author of a best seller many years before. The sense of discovery his book commemorated—the discovery by an author of his theme, his world, the discovery by the world of a new infectious voice—would never be repeated.

2.

To pick up The Asiatics today is to encounter a work that seems to be about youth as much as about Asia; its theme is the very sensations it describes, of possibility and movement and not knowing what will come next—a “sort of poetry and surprise,” as the narrator puts it—and its only larger purpose seems to be to exult in the excitement of going nowhere in particular. The rhythm of the book is less that of a train, with its destination marked on the front, than that of a fast-moving river boat that picks up a passenger here and drops off a wayfarer there, catching the light across the mountains, the sound from the huts along the shore. A large part of the meaning of the book seems to be that no logic connects one scene to the next.

This freedom from a sense of specific direction is a considerable part of the book’s contagious charm. Most books of travel are, at however unacknowledged a level, about seeking out the source of the Nile or the meaning of life; they pay lip service to a sense of purpose even when ignoring it. And novels, inevitably, aim to infuse every moment with a larger sense of meaning. Prokosch, however, seems more than happy to take every moment as it is—no more—and it is a striking feature of his narrator’s travels that, for all their near-constant danger and closeness to incarceration, there’s never a very great sense of tension. The narrator, like most young men his age, revels in a freedom from the past; and like almost all the wanderers and stragglers he meets along the way, he goes out of his way to live free of a sense of the future (when put on the spot, he says he’s going to Japan, though Japan is the one exotic Eastern place he never visits or describes). We are in a perpetual present here, akin to the swaying of a hammock under the casuarina trees.

Part of the shrewd understanding of the writer, one senses, is that he was catching a world that was only just coming into being, in all its aspects, and one feature of that new world (post-Jamesian, you could call it) is that people from the New World were going off in search of the wisdom and antiquity of the Old, and finding, often, that the Old World was hungering for the freshness of the New (“The mere presence of youth…makes my heart beat more quickly,” says a dying countess in Tehran, on meeting Prokosch’s unnamed alter ego). The logic of the book is that most of the people the young traveler meets are eager, because he is young, to pass on their wisdom to him; and he, because he is young, is eager to take it in. The result is that reading the book feels a little like being young yourself again.

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. Complete strangers are 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 he 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.

  1. *

    A very different version of this essay will appear as an introduction to a reissued edition of The Asiatics, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2005.

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