A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 23 May 2011

To A Mountain In Tibet

I'm really enjoying Colin Thubron's latest book, To A Mountain In Tibet. It's odd, but this is the first Thubron I've ever read. He's such an exceptionally gifted and vivid travel writer. This from Chapter One, where Thubron explains the motivation behind his pilgrimage to sacred Mount Kailas:

Sometimes journeys begin long before their first step is taken. Mine, without my knowing, starts long ago, in a hospital ward, as the last of my family dies. There is nothing strange in this, the state of being alone. The death of parents may bring resigned sadness, even a guilty freedom. Instead I need to leave a sign of their pasage. My mother died just now, it seems, not in the way she wished; my father before her; my sister before that, at the age of twenty-one ...

... You cannot walk out your grief, I know, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth's surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. Yet the meaning is not your own. Then you go on a journey (it's my profession, after all), walking to a place beyond your own history, to the sound of the river flowing the other way. In the end you come to a rest at a mountain that is holy to others.

The reason for this is beyond articulation. A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.

 All this is quite subtle, and honest, and beautifully expressed, I think.Thubron is saying that grief cannot be assuaged by propitiating the gods after walking another culture's pilgrimage route. You still exist - a survivor - for the moment, and death is still final. Nevertheless, there is meaning to this journey, even if the meaning is not clearly relevant to your own history. He's doing the trip in memory of his parents, as a sign of their passage, although actually the real reason is beyond articulation.  You follow the river flowing the other way (he's travelling upstream from Nepal into Tibet) - suggesting difficulty, going against the current - until your secular pilgrimage reaches a mountain that is holy, but holy to others. You are not cured of your sadness, and any change you may feel is an illusion.

We'll see by the end of the book if he gains any enlightenment.

My own mother and father also died during the past few years; and my sister, like Thubron's, died in her twenties.


Grizz………… said...

I've never heard of this writer, either…but if the rest of the book is as well-done as the quote, I want to read him. I might disagree with some of his observations on the outcome of such a journey. "The reason for this is beyond articulation," he says. "It brings an illusion, only, of change…" Well, I think he's introspectively articulating rather well—and in this very act of written analysis and revelation, as well as the journey itself, both physically and mentally, change was inevitably wrought—though "cure" would be too strong a hope. I look forward to your thoughts after finishing.

BTW, I think the parallels in your respective backgrounds in regards to deaths of parents and sisters is extraordinary.

Grace said...

I like the meandering tone to his writing--if meandering is the right word--which I guess is fitting given the subject matter. You always seem to find such interesting books to read.

The Solitary Walker said...

Grizz - I suppose Thubron is part of the older tradition of 'gentleman' travel writers, in the company of people like Wilfred Thesiger and Eric Newby.

I love travel books, Grace, and one writer seems to lead to another. Thubron is not really meandering, though he is in the sense that he intercuts his present narrative (the journey to Mt Kailas) with earlier scenes from Nepal and memories of his parents. His writing actually is quite taut - vividly dense and highly descriptive.

Alive said...

Have recently ordered this writing from the Library, sounds like a deeply expressive experience.

Alice said...

This is not really related to the topic, but I really like your blog. Like you I love hiking, reading, discovering and learning...you're in my GoogleReader :) Thanks and good job!


The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Alive, for your comment - and Alice, welcome! Hope you continue to enjoy the blog.