Nicolas Bouvier, Le vide et le plein, carnets du Japon 1964-1970

Nicolas Bouvier is my favorite travel writer in French. Mind you, he’s not French, he was Swiss. His best known travel book is “L’Usage du Monde” (translated to English as “The way of the world”), an account of his 1953 trip from his homeland to Yugoslavia, then on to Turkey, to Iran and to Pakistan. I read most of his books, but that collection, “Le vide et le plein” (Void and Full) has been published after his death in 1998 and is actually taken from personal notebooks of his repetitive and rather lengthy stays in Japan.

Before the tsunami, I thought I was going to analyze how Japan was a different destination for Bouvier than the other, wilder, less “civilized” countries he visited. Bouvier thrives in rural landscapes, in faraway islands, in managing to communicate with and understand taciturn peasants in the middle of nowhere. His portraits are vivid and unique. It’s a shame that he hasn’t been more widely acknowledged and translated in the English world.

I had read his literary account of his Japan trip (“Chroniques Japonaises”) years ago, while I lived in Asia (I remember reading his pages on the sun-drenched deck of a rusty ferry in southern Taiwan). This book presents the other side of the story: in his notebooks Bouvier is more often than not uncomfortable in Japan. He lets his frustration show (but the notebooks are not private in the sense that he rarely evokes his own life, except when his son was born and his wife was ill). He often grumbles (but with such a perceptive eye!) against snobbery, lack of spontaneity and formalism of Japanese culture and how people constantly keep him at arm’s length and remind him that he’s a foreigner and an outsider. His culture shock in Japan was, in my opinion, deeper than anywhere else, although in other countries he also took his trip to heart and fell ill too (see my review of his Irish trip).

It’s an unusual travel book in the sense that Bouvier is never ashamed to say “I don’t understand”. His book is not to explain Japan to others, his texts are literary and poetic musings born from the experience of being confronted to something new and puzzling. He’s never judgmental even when he’s frustrated.

I felt embarrassed to review this book right after the tsunami. Bad timing. It felt disrespectful, I’d rather phone or meet my Japanese friends in person than talk generalities about Japanese culture. In a sense, the recent events proved Bouvier wrong, or at least, uncovered other aspects he’d missed. Attempts to tame natural forces are just useless, and nature followed its course. So in a way, Japan has proven to be just as “natural” and “wild” a country as other Bouvier’s destinations. What he found stifling, this lack of spontaneity, of expressing feelings, we see now courage and resilience. I wonder what Bouvier would have thought of the recent events.

I had a wonderful time in Japan. One day I will go back there and show it to my son.

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2 thoughts on “Nicolas Bouvier, Le vide et le plein, carnets du Japon 1964-1970

  1. Shortly after I moved to la Suisse, my mother-in-law gave me Chroniques Japonaises and introduced me to Bouvier. I read the book and enjoyed it, but for some reason I’ve very little recollection of it. I’d like to read his other work – he’s mentioned all the time here, of course, so I feel a little silly not having read more of his work. That you like him is a great recommendation, however, and I’ll rectify the oversight.

  2. Thanks for the review. I’ve just enjoyed L’Usage du Monde. Nicolas Bouvier is really an interesting character, would be nice to learn some more about his life, maybe I should read this book to!

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