Travel books: one new, one old, two reviews.

To a Mountain in Tibet, by Colin Thubron

A simple tale of a man travelling on foot to the sacred slopes of the holy mountain of Kailas in the western Himalaya, Thubron’s deceptively profound account is also an inner journey of remembrance and grief: for his recently deceased mother, and for other family members also departed.

Kailas is the world’s most sacred peak, holy to a fifth of the world’s population. For centuries, pilgrims have come for the kora, a ritual pilgrimage trek around the mountain’s base. This is Thubron’s quest, walking from remote Nepal into Tibet to tackle the mountain.

An undisputed heavyweight of travel writing, Thubron’s writing over four decades has quietly eased him into pantheon of the greats, and In its straightforward telling this slender book feels like a throwback, an echo of past masters ,of Chatwin, Fermor and Thesiger. Indeed, one could criticise the author for trying to hard to place himself in the past, to foster the image of an explorer rather than a tourist: little mention, for example, is made of the fact that the mountain of the title is nowadays an adventure-tourist destination.

Thubron the man feels more present than on previous occasions. In previous books he’s an all but invisible presence; in To a Mountain… he’s not exactly front and centre, but personal history, beliefs and relationships play a larger role. But for anyone who balks at the intrusive narrator, who finds there is always too much Theroux in Theroux’s writings, fear not, Thubron’s is a calm presence, while the astringent prose is never overbearing. Besides, the author’s intertwining of the inner and outer journeys can be desperately moving – for evidence, read his account of tackling the 3,400 metre Torea Pass, where his deoxygenated struggle leads him to recall the moment his mother clutched at her oxygen mask for the final time.

As ever, Thubron pulls off the trick of being scholarly but never dry, peppering his account with fascinating stories of place and people. His powers of description, too, remain thrillingly undimmed, the high altitude terrain brought vividly to life, the humbling power of great mountains lucidly evoked, the different faces of Kailas articulated beautifully.

This journey, this quest, wisely avoids pat or easy conclusions – in Thubron’s own words “To ask of a journey, Why? Is to hear only my own silence.” – but instead gazes piercingly in wide-eyed, wounded wonder at the peopled world. There are only a handful of travel writers who can prompt a Publishing Event; Thubron remains one of them, and justifiably so on this evidence.

Danube by Claudio Magris

Subtitled ‘A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea’, Magris’ account of his 1983 journey is an unashamedly intellectual affair, definitively European in feel when sat next to Thubron.  He may come across as a modest man, but you’re never left in doubt that Magris is the smartest guy in the room: his gaze is all-seeing, his reading astonishingly wide, his capacity for intellectual curiosity as large as the river itself.

What saves the book from being an exhausting lecture is the author’s engaging humanity and sly self-deprecation. Dense passages of philosophical musings and digressions are punctured with wit and chance encounters where his natural curiosity shines through.

Worth noting that the start is the weakest part of the book – wade through the frankly somewhat turgid first 30 pages and you’re rewarded with the real Magris, whose prose flows like a river and proves an amiable companion downstream. A poetic way to dip into Middle European history, for any armchair traveller Danube is an essential addition to the bookshelves.

 

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