Tag Archives: Nicolas Bouvier

Marginalia, no.201

From Turkistan to the Caucasus, the fortunes of a patch of land are gauged by the quality of its melons. It is a subject of debate, pride and prestige. Throats are cut over melons, and respected men would willingly undertake a week’s journey to taste the famous white melons of Bokhara.

~ Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

In a misty corner of our family history there was a bachelor uncle named Charlie who had lost his sense of taste as the result of an accident. This was in the 1930s, in Iowa. I don’t know how it happened, whether it had started with a car crash, an illness, a mishap with farm equipment, or a knock to the head during a fight. But uncle Charlie was a high liver. Nights out with his pals he would strut into the diner and order up gastronomic blasphemies never printed on any respectable menu. Things like vanilla ice cream with mustard and dill pickles and horseradish, mashed together in a bowl and glazed in Dantean rivers of hot sauce. Surrounded by onlookers, he’d take bets from anyone that dared him, and proceed to eat the whole mess with a show of perverse relish. Then he’d laugh and collect his five or ten or twenty bucks before leaving. Hearing this story as a kid I took Uncle Charlie’s disability for a super power, and his hooting cash-fisted march back into the night for a vision of triumph. Now I can’t help but imagine his private moments: crouched in the dirt behind an outbuilding, weeping into a slice of summer watermelon and cursing God.

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Marginalia, no.181

When he was sick he was busy, as though about to hatch something or operate on himself. He scarcely replied to questions, not because he was bad tempered but because he was concentrating: the better he was at being ill, the less time he would have to spend on it.

~ Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

In the garden of Eden no one had much to say and no one got sick. If there was ever such thing as a primordial fall from grace, it was when Adam first opened his mouth to blab about the flowers. That’s when people started catching flu. I lay more immediate blame for my current cold on the man who sat behind me on the train and spent thirty minutes rapturously yawning and sighing. He must have been sick, or else drunk. But his exhalations smelled more of bacteria than alcohol.  My father: now there’s a man who knew how to be sick, like Bouvier’s friend. He would close himself in his room and not say a word or get out of bed until he was well – and it never took more than a day or two. If I don’t get over colds faster than I do, it’s probably because I never shut up.

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Marginalia, no.169

According to the etymology suggested by Balsan in Recherches au Balouchistan persan, Ba-luch signifies misfortune, which one is thus enabled to avert. Similarly the Tibetans give their infants names such as Scabby, Dejection and Bitterness in order to keep those spirits at bay until the child is weaned.

~ Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

The Greeks sought to avert misfortune by flattery, naming the stormy Black Sea the ‘Euxine’ (Hospitable) and the Furies ‘Eumenides’ (Gracious Ones). But more of us than know it are true natives of Baluchistan. My daughter’s first name, so I’ve read, is derived from the Latin for ‘blind.’ On a similar principle, my son used to plan nightmares for himself before falling asleep because he knew that dreams never worked out as expected. And when I fly I always imagine the stalled engine, the bomb in the cabin, the burst fuselage and our slow-motion fall from the sky, to ensure that it doesn’t happen.


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Notes on New Year’s Eve

The year closes with unexpected guests, unexpected gifts, and snapshots from a sixty-year-old funeral.

We found a grasshopper in the kitchen. I don’t know what usually happens to grasshoppers in winter time, whether they go into hibernation or simply die when it gets cold. I like to think that this one heard rumors of my daughter’s affection for all insects, snails and slugs, and so made a desperate trek through storm and hazard (he’s missing a leg) in hope of adoption. Which he’s now found. ‘Salty’ (from the Spanish saltamontes) is nicely set up in a little mesh insect cage on the counter, fattening on leaves of romaine and producing remarkable amounts of excrement. Really, you have no idea.

In the mail today I received a gift from Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence: a hardbound copy of Aldo Buzzi’s Journey to the Land of the Flies. I’ve been searching for this book more than a year. Mr Kurp recently mentioned picking up a copy, and I knew he’d written about it before. No wonder I can never find it, I joked, since you keep snatching up all available copies. A few days later I had an email to say that he was sending me one. ‘Merry Christmas,’ he wrote. Like a good many readers online and off, I was already in Mr Kurp’s debt. But for him and his blog, I might never have discovered Peter De Vries or L.E. Sissman or Eric Hoffer; without his encouragement, I might never have got round to reading Anthony Powell’s Music of Time or Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. But this is the happiest sort of debt.

In The Way of the World, which I’m presently reading, Nicolas Bouvier describes an Armenian funeral in Tabriz (Iran) that he attended in the 1950s. It was December. A young Christian girl had poisoned herself for love of a Muslim Romeo. At the end of the service, after the whole congregation had filed past the deceased, the doors of the church were thrown open and the girl’s jewelry and shoes were publicly removed. Grim old women with scissors cut her dress to ribbons. This was no judgment on her suicide, but rather, according to Bouvier, “it was winter, season of dearth and grave-robbers: it was hoped that by these gestures profanation would be avoided.”

We had a wind storm the other day. The leaves that had collected on our porch and sidewalk and that still clung to the sycamores like stubborn memories of summer were caught up into the air (along with everything else not bolted down) and blown to God-knows-where. Next day the world out of doors was bare and clean. How right, I thought, that New Year’s should come to us in winter rather than spring. Laying the year to rest in a world stripped of  adornments, we’re better taught, I think, that sentimentality only steals from the past, that only empty hands are open to receive new gifts.


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