The king was expected, on his way back from hunting . . . Everything along his route breathed expectancy. All the teahouses had been swept, tables laden with pears had been set up in the courtyards, and places set on white linen scattered with vanilla orchids. Squatting behind steaming teapots, the tenants scrunched up their toes inside their slippers, looking out at the dust of the royal convoy . . . [escorted by] a few men on horseback, carbines slung across their chests and lances fixed in their stirrups . . .
Which century are we in? Which country? Nicolas Bouvier’s vignette in The Way of the World won’t puzzle those of us (a rapidly dwindling cohort) who can remember Afghanistan during the reign of King Mohammad Zahir. And Nicolas’s response to the people and landscapes of that sternly beautiful country – undeveloped in the mid-twentieth century, but neither impoverished nor blood-soaked – made this reader’s heart ache.
In June 1953 the 23-year-old Nicolas left his Geneva home to motor to India (or beyond?). His artist friend Thierry Vernet was awaiting him in Belgrade and there is a picaresque whiff about the pair’s survival mechanism. Optimistically they relied for funding on their considerable talents – gambled on them, having no guarantee that anyone would want to buy Thierry’s sketches or listen to Nicolas’s lectures on French literature. The gamble succeeded, their personalities being so endearing and their needs so few; both gladly exchanged comfortable domestic backgrounds for the varied hardships of this eighteen-month journey. It was all disarmingly ad hoc – nothing prearranged, no letters of introduction – and often they slept on floors, washed in rivers, ate left-overs.
Nicolas values frugality without ever romanticizing poverty. ‘Frugality is one thing and enhances life, but continual poverty deadens it.’ On the road to Nis the young men calculated that they had earned enough in B
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