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Stranger in Paradise

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The beauty of short books is that you can afford to read them more than once. In the case of Nicolas Bouvier’s The Scorpion-Fish I read it through and then double-read it. In other words, on the second reading I read each page twice before turning to the next. With just 30 lines a page and 140 pages, it didn’t take long. It was entirely pleasurable and I felt I owed it to an author I’d once had breakfast with.

Initially I’d settled for a hurried skim. An hour later I’d returned to the contents page intrigued, unsettled and still not sure what sort of book it was. The narrative, in so far as it had one, was too surreal for a memoir, too static for a travelogue. Beginning with one departure, it ended with another, and not much happened in between. Where and when the not-much happened was also unclear. The setting had to be inferred. It was an unnamed island in the tropics but only the cover blurb identified it as Sri Lanka. The text made so little distinction between observation and hallucination that one couldn’t be sure of anything. Nor were the characters any help, they being mostly insects. The one articulate exception, a  levitating reprobate in tiny bootees and a clerical soutane, turned out to have died six years earlier. So far, so weird. But six years earlier than when? The chronology was as under-reported as the geography. In withholding even the most basic information, The Scorpion-Fish seemed intent on exploring the potential of the anti-travelogue.

This hadn’t stopped reviewers from ranking its author along with Patrick Leigh Fermor as one of the twentieth century’s finest travel writers. Born and often resident in Geneva, Bouvier wrote mostly in French, collected music, spent several years in Japan and succumbed to cancer in 1998. He was excellent company and, over our one breakfast, he’d explored the controversial idea that the Sandwich Islands were named for their abundance of breadfruit. That was in 19

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The beauty of short books is that you can afford to read them more than once. In the case of Nicolas Bouvier’s The Scorpion-Fish I read it through and then double-read it. In other words, on the second reading I read each page twice before turning to the next. With just 30 lines a page and 140 pages, it didn’t take long. It was entirely pleasurable and I felt I owed it to an author I’d once had breakfast with.

Initially I’d settled for a hurried skim. An hour later I’d returned to the contents page intrigued, unsettled and still not sure what sort of book it was. The narrative, in so far as it had one, was too surreal for a memoir, too static for a travelogue. Beginning with one departure, it ended with another, and not much happened in between. Where and when the not-much happened was also unclear. The setting had to be inferred. It was an unnamed island in the tropics but only the cover blurb identified it as Sri Lanka. The text made so little distinction between observation and hallucination that one couldn’t be sure of anything. Nor were the characters any help, they being mostly insects. The one articulate exception, a  levitating reprobate in tiny bootees and a clerical soutane, turned out to have died six years earlier. So far, so weird. But six years earlier than when? The chronology was as under-reported as the geography. In withholding even the most basic information, The Scorpion-Fish seemed intent on exploring the potential of the anti-travelogue. This hadn’t stopped reviewers from ranking its author along with Patrick Leigh Fermor as one of the twentieth century’s finest travel writers. Born and often resident in Geneva, Bouvier wrote mostly in French, collected music, spent several years in Japan and succumbed to cancer in 1998. He was excellent company and, over our one breakfast, he’d explored the controversial idea that the Sandwich Islands were named for their abundance of breadfruit. That was in 1981, the year Le Poisson-Scorpion had been published; a year later it won the Prix des Critiques. The English translation by Robyn Marsack, then director of the Scottish Poetry Library, appeared soon afterwards. Yet at the time the uneasy sojourn described in the book already dated back more than a quarter of a century. After an erratic odyssey across Asia in a diminutive Fiat (described in L’Usage du Monde, 1963, The Way of the World: see SF no. 18), Bouvier had ended up spending nine months in what was still called Ceylon in 1955. He was a slow writer and, like Fermor, ‘let a lot of water run under the bridge before returning to Ceylon’s “negative enchantment”’. According to Ms Marsack, when he did finally revisit those nine months of 1955, it was with little enthusiasm or affection. He wrote ‘in a trance fuelled by whisky and music’. Marsack calls it a case of ‘writing as exorcism’. Confronting the scorpion-fish was ‘something that had to be done, a painful analysis of what he regarded as a defeat, a slow loss of control over himself’. Had I known all this at the start, I’d have been more sympathetic. A revealing quote from the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline – ‘The worst defeat of all is to forget, especially what has crushed you’ – should have alerted me, but instead of appearing on the first page it was reserved to the last. Likewise the translator’s helpful Afterword, which follows it. I had missed both. It was mystification that prompted my second reading, and the elegance of the writing that ordained it be a double one. Returning in a more suitable frame of mind, I stopped fussing over locations and directions to beach-bum, like Bouvier, round the fort area of what was evidently ex-colonial Galle. Getting the measure of his loping syntax and his sand-blasted imagery, I succumbed to the most devastating reverie I’d ever read. For all its peculiarities – and because of them – The Scorpion-Fish is one of those books that doesn’t let go of you. Like an insistent dream, it dogs the waking day, challenging you to erase it or come up with something better. Either would be hard. Take, for instance, the ‘Oriental Patissery’ which became Bouvier’s favourite hang-out in his adopted island-home. ‘It is worth reflecting’, he begins, ‘why, at 5 degrees latitude north, 77.5 degrees longitude east and 105 degrees in the shade, a shop selling nothing but curry fritters . . . should still think it necessary to stress that it’s “oriental”.’ Does Brescia offer ‘Western Shoe Repairs’, he asks, or Bremen boast an ‘Occidental Pantry’? ‘As things stand, we are the ones who have imposed our manners, our measures, our meridians, our gods.’ And our dialectics. The Patissery’s clientele, a hapless group of ‘academic ultranationalists’, wore sarongs as a ‘protest against western alienation, injured themselves once in a blue moon with their home-made bombs – of which they were the only victims – and gathered there each evening for their whist games’.

Apostles without disciples, the group maintained a slightly tarnished virtue in lieu of a programme, and an astonishing ability to argue endlessly in the heat – getting themselves in trim for doctrinal quarrels with fraternal groups, for they were neither Stalinists, Maoists, Castroists nor Titoists but Trotskyites of more than twenty years’ standing, no doubt the last ones . . . I felt that in the matter of ideology, as in business, we had once again palmed off old stock on them. If they were strongly attached to these outmoded goods it was because they had learned from experience that we wouldn’t be back to collect them.

Equatorial Bolshevism was doomed anyway, like all other forms of social engagement below the Tropic of Cancer. It was just too hot. Class struggle and the proletarian revolution were the inventions of an Arctic intelligentsia that ‘blew on their fingers before writing’. ‘Engels had a hot-water bottle, the proofs of Kapital were corrected in mittens, Trotsky’s ink froze in the inkwell.’ (But did they? Or was Bouvier improvising, as with the breadfruit?) Alone, mildly deranged and drawing heavily on dwindling resources – of cash, strength, memory – he had had much in common with the Trotskyites. He found their ‘funereal hilarity’ positively consoling.

I am grateful to you, Soviet of the ‘Oriental Patissery’ [he recalled], and I see you again now: the oil lamp smokes and chars, a black icon; faces with large pores gleam in the night heat while time dissolves in ghostly speeches; through arak fumes you could cut with a knife the glow of a cheroot illuminates decayed teeth. They put down their cards, patiently poking at the past, as I did myself today. If you forbade the aged to use that little phrase ‘do you remember’, there would be no more conversation: we all have it in us to suddenly, quietly, cut our throats.

It was memories that moored one to the past and kept one sane. As each frayed and gave way, Bouvier slipped into deeper water and felt more alone and helpless than ever. Anyone trying to write who has shut themselves away in the back of beyond will know the feeling. His girl had just jilted him, his friends had left soon after he arrived, he knew no one and he was living on boiled fish-heads and arak. The Number One in the 1955 hit parade was ‘Stranger in Paradise’. And he was suffering, explains Marsack, not just from acute self-awareness but from ‘a triple attack of amoebiasis, malaria and jaundice’. Fever and the indiscriminate consumption of medicational drugs accounted for the light-headedness. Delirium followed, and then the hallucinations and visions. One such was the levitating Father Alvaro in his absurd bootees and tatty soutane. Bouvier insists that, though Alvaro was indeed a ghost, he was a real ghost. Other people had met him; his distinguished career as a linguist and ethnographer was a matter of record; and thanks to Alvaro’s editing, Bouvier’s English-language journalism attained a ‘mastery and sombre splendour’ that were frankly miraculous. ‘Twenty-five years later I cannot reread those texts without a shudder; they stink of sulphur and solitude.’ Whether the scorpion-fish also stank of sulphur and solitude is debatable. It too was real enough at first. A male with ‘a sepia-flecked parasol of poisonous barbs’, it lived in a jar on the counter of the local grocery store. The shop, a cavern draped with culinary oddities, was the domain of a Tamil Muslim so ‘immobilized by her size’ she never stirred from her accustomed sack of lentils. To repel intruders and to reach her stock of dried fish, spices and molasses she wielded a hooked stick. She was said to have a husband (Bouvier thought she might be sitting on him). She had two admirers, the fish and Bouvier.

When she thinks herself alone, she leans her cheek against the glass [of the fish’s jar] and makes faces at him, and he responds with generous quivering. I have found her at this game several times; I hold my breath and retreat on tip-toe, jealous as a discarded suitor. But there’s no law against dreaming. If she ever surprised me spying, perhaps she would give me her mascot . . .

Sure enough, when in the book’s last cathartic moments Bouvier vacates his garret in a ramshackle boarding-house, the fish is there on the shelf. So ‘she did give it to me after all’, he exclaims unconvincingly. Or maybe it’s just the ghost of the fish. Blood is streaming down his face (in the darkness he’d collided with a signpost to the hospital) but the cut is as nothing to the ‘tears of exhilaration and relief ’ that dribble into his packing. ‘I began to revive: I had touched bottom, I was coming up like a bubble.’ Beside the jar he watched a little pink crab fold its claws ‘in mourning’, and ‘in the nooks and crannies of my lodging I could see pincers, stings and wings, pointing’. For nine months the ants and termites had kept him  company. He’d conversed with the cowardly cockroaches and been chided by an officious dung-beetle. Here the scorpion-fish in its glass jar would feel as excluded as he had. As the fever broke, and as the nightmare ended and the rains arrived, ‘all my menagerie were wishing me an anxious farewell’.
I left on the table the money I owed the landlord and for the last time looked round this blue attic where I’d been a prisoner so long. It was vibrating with ineffable music.

The worst defeat of all is to forget,

especially what has crushed you.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 54 © John Keay


About the contributor

John Keay’s latest book, The Tartan Turban, is a biography of Alexander Gardner, much of whose freebooting life was spent lost in Central Asia.

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