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Travelers in Asia : THE SCORPION-FISH by Nicholas Bouvier, translated from the French by Robyn Marsack (Carcanet: $17.95; 122 pp.) : FORBIDDEN JOURNEY: THE LIFE OF ALEXANDRA DAVID-NEEL by Barbara and Michael Foster (Harper & Row: $19.95; 354 pp.)

December 06, 1987|Victoria Scott | Scott has an MA in Buddhist studies from Yale. and

It isn't easy to get off the beaten track in Asia. Asia is, of course, off the track of Western life, but Europeans early cut a wide swath down which the average traveler can pass, seeing colorful sights and smelling a bit of stench, but protected by familiarity all the same. As Nicholas Bouvier points out, "We are the ones who've imposed our manners, our measures, our meridians, our gods."

Nevertheless, there are always those who go to meet the mysterious East more than halfway and emerge the better for it. Such is the case both with Bouvier, a Swiss writer and artist whose 1981 semi-autobiographical novel has just been translated from the French, and with Alexandra David-Neel (1869-1968), the first Western woman to reach Lhasa.

Since the two traveled in different places at different times--Bouvier in Ceylon in the 1950s, David-Neel in Central Asia in the period spanning the world wars--their stories could hardly be more disparate. Yet both authors have a certain tenacity and an inwardness that make them fascinating chroniclers of the people they meet and the atmospheres they experience (David-Neel's has "air like champagne," while Bouvier's is so oppressive that "the heat always wins in the end").

Both travelers are interested in everything and surprised at nothing. Their ties to the West reduced to the ever-sporadic mails, Bouvier and David-Neel know what it is to be ill, lost (literally or figuratively) and almost without money. As a result, Bouvier becomes psychologically paralyzed, fevered, cynical; his demons spring--as he is the first to admit--solely from his own mind.

David-Neel, a cannier sojourner, neither dips into the gold jewelry she carries secreted on her person nor panics when up to her armpits in snow, but concentrates on her goal of acclaim upon her return to France. She triumphs over man and beast, but not over what Bouvier calls "that self which stands in the way of everything." It is Bouvier who seems to understand more about the Buddha's notions of suffering and emptiness.

"Forbidden Journey" and "The Scorpion-Fish" are different in format and intent. The scorpion-fish is a gorgeous but poisonous symbol of Bouvier's love-hate reaction to Ceylon. His slim book is an eloquent but sometimes ugly journal in which he gives a highly subjective, sometimes hallucinatory account of what it is like to live among people who believe in spirits--and to begin to see them oneself. Like the insects who are his most intimate companions, Bouvier begins to "grow antennae" that are "tensed between the real and the occult," and hence "agonizing."

Toward the end of his stay, Bouvier meets--or invents--the ghost of a Catholic padre who tells him that "the Evil One's best-kept secret is that he's formless: to give him a shape is to fall into his first trap." Thus in his writing Bouvier begins to seek "a harmonization of forms and formulae to ward off the formlessness all around me" and ends up "finding an epithet while crouching over the slop bucket, seeing an adjective in the shaving mirror, here and there . . . a word like a fresh egg laid in the straw."

Bouvier has noted earlier that "You don't travel in order to deck yourself out with exoticism and anecdotes like a Christmas tree, but so that the route plucks you, rinses you, wrings you out, makes you like one of those towels threadbare with washing that are handed out with slivers of soap in brothels." David-Neel was in some ways such a Christmas tree, but the route no doubt "rinsed" her too: She never enjoyed recognition as much as trekking over the steppes and mountain passes of Tibet.

In "Forbidden Journey"--a quirkily written biography that quotes heavily from David-Neel's letters and publications--Barbara and Michael Foster have unearthed some interesting memos on David-Neel in the archives of the India Office's secret files; have fleshed out her early associations with the Theosophical Society; have shed light on her relations with her husband, Philip Neel, and have interviewed people who knew her in the last quarter of her life.

However, the Fosters also draw conclusions that even David-Neel (never one to downplay her accomplishments) never voiced. For example, they assert that she "reached the samadhi sought by the yogi through meditation" at a certain point in her journey to Lhasa. While this is by no means impossible, neither is there--nor could there be--evidence that it did in fact occur.

To read "The Scorpion-Fish" and "Forbidden Journey" is to be drawn off the tourist track and into the life of Asia, where the distinction between fact and fiction has long been blurred--and hence, for those who can see, clarified. The particular decade, country, protagonist and ambient temperature don't matter; the tension and resolution between "the real and the occult" remain the same.

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