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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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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