Last night I read a chunk of the novel The Asiatics, by Frederick Prokosch. I say "a chunk", because my copy is missing the first fifty pages or so, so I was plunged into the middle of the action, at which point out hero was already locked up in a Turkish jail.

The Amazon description of the book says:

"André Gide praised The Asiatics as "an authentic masterpiece"; Thomas Mann called it "brilliant." First published in 1935 and virtually unavailable for years, this extraordinary novel tells the story of a young American--the unnamed narrator--who hitchhikes his way across Asia, from Beirut to China, living off the land and depending on the hospitality of the people he meets along the road. As Pico Iyer writes in the introduction, "[Prokosch] catches the peculiar logic that makes travel a land of alternative reality, a foreign state in itself that is an intoxication.""

The book portrays a naive but spirited American travelling rough through southern Asia. He meets with numerous adventures, in several of which he would, in most normal cases, have ended up dead. One thing that the book does illustrate is how a person of optimistic or naive disposition can easily leave himself open to danger that a more suspicious or pessimistic person would have easily avoided. This, perhaps, helps to account for the survival of pessimism and cynicism as such common traits: they have survival value. For instance, there is a sequence in which he trusts somebody who is clearly trying to exploit him (mistake number one), puts himself effectively in this person's care (mistake number two) and when they are in an isolated place the scoundrel tries to kill him (surprise!) but he manages to thwart this attack. However, he than forgives the assailant (mistake number three) and allows the fellow to persuade him not to part company (four) so they go to an even wilder place and the villain gets his mates this time, a gang of brigands, who come and take the man captive (I ask you!). However, while he is waiting to be tortured, one of the brigands takes pity on him and, in a very unlikely scenario, helps him escape. Well, the gods were certainly smiling on him, but he was rather asking for it. Even if one does have guardian angels, one should not make them have to work so hard. Well, it is a novel!

It is a novel, but it carries a good deal of philosophical rumination too. In fact, there is a dearth of small talk. The characters are all either silent types (strong and silent, morose and silent, inscutable and silent, sad and silent,.....) or they start conversations with complete strangers with lead lines like, "What do you think of death?" or "What is the meaning of happiness?" etc. If it were a real diary then I suppose one would say that they were the only bits worth recording or remembering.

Anyway, it is quite a good read.

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This puts me in mind of a book by Tristan Jones, who goes on a journey to sail the lowest body of water and the highest body of water, on what could only be termed "shoe string" budget and therefore has to depend on the kindness and many times the unkindness of strangers. At one point he is crossing the street in Lima, Peru and when he gets to the other side finds that someone has stolen his wallet. When he seeks help from the police, he is jailed for having no I.D.

I'm wondering if the book you describe would be useful background reading for the China historical fiction I'm working on. How he manage to get into China at all during that time is a story in itself I imagine.

I have given up on the book for now. The thing I enjoyed in it is the adventures and scrapes he gets into and out of. The thing I don't like is the negativism about people. Almost every character sketch - and there are dozens - is an assassination. The hero maintains his sunny disposition through a rather naive disparagement of all the other characters. After a while it ceases to be amusing and becomes tedious. Well, as I say, I haven't read to the end so who knows, perhaps there is a moral drawn out later, but for now I'll read something else. Namo Amida Bu.


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