A powerful, unexpected scene suddenly surfaces near the beginning of Colin Thubron’s characteristically beautiful, though uncharacteristically haunted, new book of travel. As he walks through the mountains of Nepal, toward the holy peak of Mount Kailas in Tibet, he abruptly realizes that he’s only 140 miles from Naini Tal, the Indian hill station whose name rang across his home as a boy, in his father’s reminiscences. His father had been a British soldier in India, he tells us, and the accounts, recently found by the son, of the father’s hunting trips from Naini Tal “are as detailed and exact as if he were on campaign.” His father’s hand-drawn maps “are meticulous, even beautiful, and his observations sometimes have the near-scientific exactitude of a Victorian explorer’s.” Maybe, Thubron writes in a typically brief but resonant phrase, his father on these trips “became solitary, perhaps himself.”
This is a startling moment for those of us who have followed this patient explorer on his majestic series of rigorous and soulful accounts of travels across the great land mass that links the Middle East, Central Asia, China, and Russia. For Thubron renders these often forbidding places transparently, and with rare immediacy, precisely by keeping himself mostly out of the picture. Coming across as a model of the elegant, reticent, and selfless British traveler of old, he offers records of foreign places at the other extreme from the richly subjective torrent of judgments, sexual confessions, digressions, and pop-cultural references we find in a modern American traveler such as Paul Theroux. Thubron all but erases himself in order to give us full and meticulous observations we can trust.
Yet every phrase of his description of his father could, in fact, refer to himself; it may be the best (though still fleeting) evocation of him we’ve had in his works of nonfiction (in his seven novels Thubron is correspondingly passionate and unguarded). The passage reminds us that, in another age, he might have been exactly the kind of person—part explorer, part uncomplaining soldier, part exquisitely learned civil servant—who helped imperial Britain control and administer such a large part of the globe. It also tells us that, beyond just undertaking a strenuous, life-challenging trip to the 22,000-foot peak that is sacred to Tibetans, Hindus, Jains, and followers of Tibet’s pre-Buddhist Bon tradition—both animist and shamanistic—he is attempting something else in this brief, late work: a coming to terms with his inheritance and a facing of those questions, however obscurely formulated, he finds buried in himself.
Those who have read Thubron’s memorable works of travel will know something of what to expect in To a Mountain in Tibet (recently excerpted in these pages*). After four short books—on Damascus, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus—culminating in 1975, he began his epic sequence of comprehensive and attentive excavations of the …