For many of its practitioners, travel writing is entirely a romantic venture by which the writer imagines himself as the hero of his own account, tramping his way through uncharted sands like Lawrence of Arabia. A more modest writer might see things less conceitedly and make himself the fool instead; but surely only a truly self-effacing one could resist the temptation of making himself the central character in his own travel book.
One such writer was the late Norman Lewis, a prolific traveller whose ego rarely made an appearance in any of his works. He once described himself as a semi-invisible man, a writer of “revealing little descriptions” who, in words that were always well considered, got to the heart of a place by examining its history and its people. In particular, he was interested in the indigenous people he met in the many countries he visited, those whose entire existence was—and in many cases still is—threatened by our ever-changing world.
Lewis had an exceptional gift for capturing the atmosphere of a country on the cusp of social or political change. In A Dragon Apparent (1951), about his travels in what was known then as Indo-China, he writes of Vietnam during a period of violent transition; and in Golden Earth (1952) details a war-stricken Burma that is already starting to develop in a most severe and baleful way. These books would likely have been considered classics even if Burma and Vietnam had changed little in the years following their publication. But it is true that they are made all the more interesting in light of the Vietnam War and Burma’s military junta.
Golden Earth is the lesser known of the two: surprisingly little appears to have been written about it online, as manifestly brilliant as it is. It opens memorably on a surge of description, with “Burma spread as a dark stain into the midnight sea,” and a “moonlight too weak” to reveal fully a breath-taking spectacle of golden pagodas. Yet by the very next page Lewis has shifted moods entirely, and is now explaining how, through “a slow process of compression and corruption”, officials handling his travel documents have managed to confuse his name with Thirty Bedford Square, the address of his publisher. Thus for the rest of his trip he is known as “Monsieur Thirsty Bedford”.
Lewis had a sense of humour like no other travel writer. His works were often funny, though rarely did he crack wise. His wit instead came from his remarkable ability to deconstruct the absurd using his typically dry, detached style. At his funniest, his prose read like that of S.J. Perelman, a writer Lewis admired and later befriended. But unlike Perelman, Lewis was never intent on merely making his reader laugh. In fact, often the most humorous parts of his books were also the most revealing. A perfect example of this can be found in the first half of Golden Earth, where Lewis describes his ordeal of eating a meal by which “all European prejudices about food had to be abandoned”.
Lewis dines in what he calls “a murky grotto” in which a cook stands, naked to the waist, with “a snippet” of intestine dangling from his finger. A lesser writer might have had his fun with this image and moved on, but here Lewis takes the opportunity to make fun of himself too, and later, after conceding to try the dish, is impressed to find that it is surprisingly edible. This is typically open-minded of Lewis, who never let a bad experience tarnish his image of a country or its people. A few pages later, he is trying to sleep and is startled by something he “half-dreamed half-thought” climbing up the leg of his camp bed. He soon discovers that he is sharing the bed with a scorpion, but again, resists the urge to grouse.
Of course, the reader understands why Lewis is reluctant to complain: compared to the people that Lewis writes about, his grievances seem inconsequential. Within the very first few pages of Golden Earth we hear how pirates have held up a ferryboat and killed three members of the crew, and similar incidents have become almost a daily occurrence. The Burma portrayed throughout the book is one of fear and unrest, where insurgents and warlords are commonplace, and the country’s post-colonial government can do little to stop them. Yet aside from this, Lewis is overwhelmed equally by the country’s breath-taking natural beauty and the kind generosity of the Burmese.
Their standard of living has been better in the past—this is a practically undisputed fact—but Lewis wants to know specifically if things were better in the days of British rule. Apparently it is commonly agreed: “Better?” they say. “Why even bring it up? Everyone was well off then.” British rule, we’re told, brought several enduring changes to Burma that completely transformed its once-agrarian society. Up until that point, kings had ruled the country, perhaps the most infamous of which being King Mindon Min. He is remembered largely for his attempts to modernise his kingdom, for his sheer brutality, and for his great many children, of which seventy were of royal birth.
Hsinbyumashin, one of his queens, dominated the last days of Mindon’s rule, and ordered that almost all possible heirs to the throne be killed, so that her daughter Supayalat and son-in-law Thibaw would become queen and king. What ensued was a long and brutal ceremony in which the siblings were placed in red velvet sacks and respectfully beaten to death in a festival lasting six days. “Clearing” is the word Lewis uses to describe the massacre, “cleared” being the current Burmese euphemism for such planned killings. As for the sacks—no doubt the reader has already guessed why these were made of red velvet: it was to “camouflage any unseemly effusion of royal blood”.
A great admirer of Herodotus, Lewis was a historian at heart, though he was also too gifted in other ways to be confined to that title. His accounts, as bold and brimming with description as they were, rarely took the form of step-by-step reportage. When Lewis did adopt the familiar style of most travel writers, he did so only briefly, and never to give the reader a greater impression of himself. The place and its people were always his priority; he was only ever a casual observer, a chronicler of the exotic, whose job it was to inform and entertain the reader, never to impose his personality upon them.
By revealing so little about himself, Lewis was able to say more about his subject and fill his accounts with more “revealing little descriptions”. Golden Earth paints a fascinating portrait of Burma at a notably turbulent time, and yet Lewis doesn’t stop there. As he reels through a substantial portion of its history, he also attempts to offer the reader an idea of how the average Burmese behaves and thinks. We are told that they are not a resentful people; they are, as a whole, accepting of Westerners, and their hospitality is sometimes so great that it borders on embarrassing. Lewis is treated like an old friend wherever he goes, and frequently feels bad for taking so much in exchange for so little.
We learn, too, (though Lewis himself has his doubts) how the women of Burma enjoy “absolute equality” to men, and that long extracts from the ancient Laws of Manu can be quoted in support of this contention. Buddhism is the country’s main religion, and at first the Burmese can seem rather pious. But as Lewis explains, 1950s Burma is more modern than it at first seems. It is surprisingly British in some respects too, and Lewis does not find it especially strange when he encounters a man enjoying a Penguin D.H. Lawrence, or a Director of Prisons who quotes Chaucer. He is, however, amused to meet a restaurant owner who is eager to serve him egg and chips, despite Lewis’s insistence that he’d much rather try something more exotic.
Lewis seems genuinely beguiled by Burma. Looking beyond the fighting and unrest, he gathers a sense of what it is truly about, and fancies it a land where “the condition of the soul replaces that of the stock market as a topic of polite conversation”. Burma’s obvious political problems aside, he believes that it is a most exceptional country, better in many ways than our own: it is fertile, reasonably populated, and free from the damaging myths of colour, race or caste. “All that is necessary,” he concludes, “is to cure the people of their infantile craving for trash from overseas,” for unnecessary consumption has no place in Burmese life.
As for Burma’s communist incursions: Lewis predicts an incurable dictatorship that will lead to civil war. But never in the pages of Golden Earth does he sound terribly pessimistic. He was an optimist in many ways, and this quality is the golden thread that can be found in all of his travel books. While he may have been interested highlighting man’s darkest propensities, he seemed to believe equally that man has the ability to do good. Otherwise he wouldn’t have written so fondly of the great many countries he visited. Lewis certainly saw plenty of good in the Burmese he met, and this mesmerising account is teeming with the same exuberance and compassion that he claimed to have witnessed on this unforgettable trip.
Read on normanlewis.co.uk.