Two Frenchmen in the Orient

TWO FRENCHMEN IN THE ORIENT

Introduction

There was everywhere amongst Orientalists the ambition to formulate their discoveries, experiences, and insights…

– Edward Said, Orientalism

The lines tremble but my smile is steady. When I lose the flow, my eyes turn towards the glassless windows. The landscape is not particularly eventful, but I notice it: one of the last ordinary moments not yet too familiar. One and a half century earlier, another Frenchman, too, kept smiling on his uncomfortable ride. From the back of his camel, on the way to Koseir, the twenty-nine year old novice was probably daydreaming about his next novel. The reverie was only interrupted by a few seconds of attentive observations, aimed at filling up his travel notes with unique and exotic material.

The eight-forty bus has succeeded in a few weeks to do what my mother failed to manage for years: motivating me to wake up. The seven minute long journey is the only treat of ‘pleasure reading’ for the sad utilitarian that I have become. Following the recommendations of a distant lover, soon to be ex-lover, I purchased half of the corpus of Alain de Botton, a popular contemporary writer, half Swiss, half British, half philosopher and half novelist. His classic The Art of Travel seemed particularly pertinent for my own situation: four years after setting foot in India, the mere idea of going on a trip could make me fall sick. I was a happy foreigner, but a mediocre traveler. De Botton would become, for a few weeks, my daily revitalizing cure, cheaper and healthier than allopathy. It is through him that I came to realize that the other Frenchman, in his 1849-1850 journey around the Nile, undertook an experience similar to mine. My historical alter ego, like me, had hopes of finding inspiration, both emotionally and artistically, when he decided to go see for himself the mythical Egypt. It was his own version of the Orient, even if that was only halfway of mine. Some of his comments were clearly ‘young’, immature, still affected by the early months of cultural disorientation. But I could see myself in him, and him in me.

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I can write on virtually everything, except for the very things I have been living. One should face the facts: I cannot manage to write on my Indian life.

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Nearly fifty months in India and I am now acquainted and almost comfortable with my anxious passivity in front of the blank page. Family and friends, once intrigued by my tales, have been hoping for more ‘pebbles’ – perhaps they wished that one day these stories would help find my way back home. But one or two years ago, they stopped expecting my literary revival. The initial legion of instantaneous and minute descriptions, soon replaced by less numerous but supposedly deeper reflections on my experience, had become old memories. The proudly announced book on my days in India was postponed indefinitely, even after a prolix prologue on my last six months in France. I can write on virtually everything, except for the very things I have been living. One should face the facts: I cannot manage to write on my Indian life. Perhaps I had lived too much, making me scared to attempt descriptions and reflections that I would right away find reductive or simplifying. Perhaps I had lived too less, limiting the sphere of experiences to the too-comfortable world of university degrees and expected social life of a westerner in a westernizing country. Perhaps I did not live the right things, only aiming at what I came to find. Or, on the contrary, as I was perhaps energetically avoiding precisely these very things I came to find. I could do with a reference. I could do with a template. I could do with a prototype of the traveler turned writer. Somewhere between Parkala and Manipal, I came across Flaubert.

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References

Image courtesy: SB

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