Justin Marozzi on Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent

The Semi-invisible Man

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Among the memories of my one visit to Burma almost twenty years ago, the drunken cook who kept falling off our train is probably the most unforgettable. A couple of friends and I had managed to hire a private train from Rangoon to Mandalay. It came complete with a cook who, in between punishing sessions on the local firewater, maintained an erratic flow of fried rice to his three passengers. When no food had arrived for several hours, it was clear he had fallen off again, yet so far he had always managed to reappear in good spirits. The discovery of our bottle of whisky proved a temptation too far. This time he had fallen off, taking the whisky with him, and it was the last we saw of him.

To add to this unexpected encounter, my two friends suddenly embarked on a passionate railway romance, disappearing for hours on end and leaving me to absorb the magical, stupa-studded scenes from the train window on my own. It could have become dreary after a while but fortunately I was not alone. I had Norman Lewis with me. There is no better travelling companion.

Published in 1952, Golden Earth remains one of the most timeless guides to Burma. It is classic Lewis, crammed with incident, humour, observation and detail. There is no mistaking the poise of his prose (Luigi Barzini likened reading it to ‘eating cherries’), nor the empathy that characterizes his dealings with everyone he meets, from monks and policemen to businessmen and lorry drivers. Both Golden Earth and its immediate predecessor, A Dragon Apparent (1951), based on his travels in Indochina, are much more than very fine examples of twentieth-century travel literature. This is profoundly civilized writing in defence of ancient civilizations under imminent threat.

Like Wilfred Thesiger in the Middle East before the discovery of oil ripped apart its social and physical landscape, and Patrick Leigh Fermor in eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain was drawn across it, Lewis

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About the contributor

Justin Marozzi has been living in Mogadishu for a year, reading lots of Lewis, Trollope and Marcus Aurelius to stay sane. His latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

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