Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A Belgian in Ecuador

If you’ve read my post about Jorge Luis Borges’ list of favourite books, A Personal Library, you know that the Argentine master included Henri Michaux’s book A Barbarian in Asia in it. Alas, I have not succeeded in finding it. But I did manage to find a Michaux book called Ecuador. On the last page of the Portuguese edition I can read that my copy belongs to a print run of only a thousand copies. It was published in 1998 by an independent publisher, Fenda, that specialised in unusual writers and no longer exists. I suppose I should count myself lucky for being one of the thousand. The book itself lived in my ambulatory stack of unread books for about two years – sometimes it was on the book-filled stool next to my bed, sometimes inside a closet where I keep lots of books piled up on each other willy-nilly because I’ve run out of shelves. And a few weeks ago I finally read it.

A Barbarian in Asia, according to what I’ve read about it, is a travel book about Michaux’s trips to China and India. And Ecuador is the diary of a year-long trip to Ecuador. Michaux (1899-1984) was twenty-eight when he took this journey to this South American country. It starts in December 1927 and ends in January 1928, the same year he published it. It was his first book, and it was an unusual travel book.

The book is not without its incidents – starvation, diseases, dangerous encounters with local fauna, drugs – and the traditional descriptions of customs, people, fashions, monuments, landscape that are the stock and trade of travel books. But Michaux focused mostly on introspection and he had a witty sense of humour. His long boat journey across the Atlantic allows him to write about boredom:

To think that twenty-five million fishes have seen us pass, Boskoop, have seen your stupid hull, God knows thinking about what when they saw us, to speak only of the adults. We also passed closed to algae, close to a bit of everything. And we knew nothing, saw nothing, not one fish, not one alga, nothing.

Boskoop! A great bind crossing the Atlantic. If we were inside a bag it’d be the same.

It’s understandable why many boats end up in the bottom of the sea. They don’t deserve anything else.

Four thousand miles without seeing anything. Big and small waves, splashes, some crests threatening to jump over the rail, huge waves against at the prow, flying fishes and even a storm; in a word: nothing! Nothing!

After several days in the high sea, he writes in despair, “But where’s the journey anyway?”

Once he sets foot on Ecuador, there are typical passages about the idiosyncrasies of the country:

It’s hard to determine the weather in Ecuador. In the high plateaus, people use to say, and it’s correct: the four seasons in one day.

In the morning, Summer.

At noon, Spring. The sky starts turning cloudy.

At four o’clock in the afternoon, rain. Cool.

Winter night, cold and luminous.

Therefore, when you go about for several straight hours, clothing constitutes a real difficulty.

They desperately come out with a straw hat, a linen jacket, a fur coat and an umbrella.

Michaux was also a poet and the book is peppered with poems about Ecuador: from monuments to mountains, from animals to customs, Michaux found a way of turning his impressions of the country into poetry:

The San Pablo Lake

Light must your waters be.
But you are so sombre.
Usually lakes are happy,
They have boats and laughter, houses surround them.
But you are so sombre.
One thousand two hundred meters up,
There where the water of triumphant lakes are imagined to be rosy,
You are sombre, shallow even.
The Imbamburo crushes you,
Overpowers you, humiliates you.
It shoots immediately from your shore upwards, so far upwards.
It’s a great mountain,
(Not counting it’s a great volcano.)
It calls you “Well!” It calls you “Joint!”
It fills itself up with colour in the peak,
And only leaves you the measure of your shadow.
Oh sad, oh sombre!
Oh eel-coloured Lake!

Mera-Satzayacu (Napo)

This stage happens in the desert.
This desert is a forest.
Four days of roots and mud.
Neither birds, nor serpents, nor mosquitoes.
And the earth is cold and there are swamps everywhere.
And yet it’s the tropical forest.
One need only see its luxury, its nuptials, its look of mucous membrane.
A mucous membrane that rather looks like a gutter.
One walks on foot and there are no paths.
With the feet laughed at! Laughed at! Mocked!
The ground doesn’t give a damn, it doesn’t tell us yes or no,
It gurgles at will,
It receives us up to the waist.
Laughed at! Laughed at! Mocked!
The roots flay us,
Unhinge and break our joints,
Viscous, slippery, they push us,
Throw us down, illuminate us
And lose us in one of the infinite infectious holes
That form the forest’s floor.
I, above all, am sensitive to cold.
At night I felt great shudders.
Malaria, I though.

And sometimes he just fills the diary with musings:

On drugs:

A round word, which encompasses almost my entire idea of Asia and which was an idée fixe in my youth: Opium. Now I know you… and you’re not one of mine.

This badly incorporated perfection means nothing to me. Better ether, more Christian: it tears mean from himself.

Opium remains in my veins. It fills them with enchantment, satisfaction.

Well. But what good does that do to me? It embarrasses me.

What’s left of me, if my nerves are smothered?

On returning to Paris:

I’m going to back to Paris, and when one returns to Paris without a penny, for all we care we may have crossed Brazil and the tropical forest and we won’t have escaped the claws of misery, and we can’t stop thinking dourly about the bug-filled room that we’ll have to find in that great Paris that we know, ah yes, that we know so well.

At least for once this truth must be said.

On money:

Money! Money, one day I’ll speak about you. In this century, one is not a poet who doesn’t say good things about money. Looking back, until I lose sight of it, my life doesn’t leave this gear. Let us be calm, however. Perhaps it’s the effect of laudanum mixed up with the ether.

Sometimes it’s just a sentence. “For young people, cities are a good exercise on hatred.” Obviously Michaux didn’t want to hate because he set out to discover the whole world.

Finally, one of my favourite passages:

Don’t take me for dead just because the newspapers announced that I’ve already disappeared. I’ll become more humble than I am now. What else. I’m counting on you, reader, I’m counting on you reading me one day, on you, female reader. Don’t leave me alone with the dead, like a soldier on the front who doesn’t receive letters. For my great anxiety and for my great desire, chose me from amongst them. Speak to me then, I’m begging you, I’m counting on it.

Frequently some ask why the young men of this generation are desperate. It’s because they realize they’re being sacrificed. They can glimpse the beautiful age. They won’t live in it. Which one of them wouldn’t accept to end his life now to live in the year 2500?

This state of spirit is new in the world. In the past we didn’t expect from the future everything we expect.

This isn’t a review, it’s just evidence that Henri Michaux existed. I’m just doing what Michaux is asking. I’m reading him. Few writers are this honest in asking to be read. Let us all applaud Michaux for his honesty and read him. He’s not afraid to admit he’s counting on us. How many writers tell their readers they count on them? Yes, there’s something special about him.

This was written for the European Reading Challenge.


  1. Hey, I have an unread Michaux book, too, the old New Directions collection. Let me see what is in it.

    A Barbarian in Asia - no, none of that. Ecuador - a two page excerpt.

    Well, that is disappointing. I guess I should read the book sometime.

  2. I like the fact that that it sounds as if this book combines such diverse elements. The combination of travelogue, philosophy, poetry; sounds quirky and different.

    1. Brian, yes, it was an odd travel book, that's why I liked it. I just wish finding his books were easier, there's obviously a lot to discover in him.