“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 …