Posts Tagged ‘Bernard Ollivier’

Tim Cope: On the Trail of Genghis Khan

January 9, 2016

51v22B8bKZL._AA160_It took me rather a while to warm to Tim Cope‘s adventures; initially the idea of trying to retrace the tracks of the Mongols under Genghis Khan from Mongolia to Hungary – the full extent of their maraudings – seemed rather self-indulgent, and this wasn’t helped by the account of his girlfriend accompanying the early part of his journey. But I had misjudged him; once she had gone back to Europe, and he was well advanced into Mongolia and heading for Kazakhstan, it settled into a fascinating account of a journey and the history and cultures of the land he was passing through.

As he travelled, he clearly developed – and, more importantly, perhaps, managed to convey clearly to his readers – a real empathy with, and understanding of, the peoples through whose lands he was travelling and the arduousness of their lives; there was an openness about him, a wish to understand and to learn about a people who had built one of the greatest empires ever, terrorising everyone in their wake. With Cope, we learn about these nomads, their necessary wanderings and their relations with their livestock. We learn about a completely different way of life that we might never otherwise imagine, one necessitated by a combination of geography, weather and force of circumstances; we can see perhaps a certain attraction to it, at least in contrast with the crazy and hectic pace of life in, and the rampant consumerism of the ‘advanced’ West. The reader learns much from Cope’s account, which is supported by copious and helpful footnotes and excellent maps (though I did find Bloomsbury’s choice to use American English spellings in an English edition rather annoying).

I found myself re-thinking some of my earlier judgements about there not being real opportunities for travel and exploration nowadays because of how accessible everywhere is; Cope’s journey reminded me of the travels of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming through similar territory in the 1930s, and I was reminded of the accounts I’ve read of demanding travels by William Dalrymple, Sylvain Tesson and Bernard Ollivier (all of whom you can read about elsewhere on this blog if you search for them).

And yet, things are not the same: Cope had the benefits of GPS, mobile phone, and the ability to take a break and fly off home or anywhere else if he really needed to, advantages which earlier travellers did not have, and which do help him at several points on his journey. But I do not think that such ‘luxuries’ detract from his achievement, and they cannot take away his genuine commitment to the journey or love of the peoples and places he encountered. And by the end one can see that he was far more affected by his journey than he ever expected to be.

I learnt much about places, peoples and history; I was further shocked, if that is possible, by the account of the post-Soviet decline, alcoholism and appalling corruption endemic in the entire region, which he catalogues, usually impartially. There’s a good deal of food for thought about world economics and power politics there; no nation or system comes off well from it, and, as usual, it’s the ordinary folk who suffer most. A very worthwhile read, and I shall look out further of his writings.

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Bernard Ollivier: Sur le chemin des Ducs

May 9, 2015

downloadI became a fan of Bernard Ollivier through reading his epic account of walking the entire Silk Route, from Turkey to China, which took him three years and which he completed in several slices. He’s an interesting man, who has also set up an organisation in his native France which aims to help young offenders rethink their lives and get back on the straight and narrow through long-distance walking, and this has had some success.

In this book he’s in his home territory of Normandy completing the pilgrim’s walk from Rouen to Mont St Michel – not a long trek compared with his previous ones. I was also attracted to this book because of my own love of Normandy, where many aeons ago, it seems, for a year I was an assistant at a secondary school. I came to enjoy the food and the landscape.

Ollivier is more relaxed as he walks, in familiar territory, including passing through the town where he grew up. He describes well the beauty of the Normandy landscape and his love of solitude, nature and contemplation comes strongly through his writing. There’s also rather more humour than I recall from his previous books. The episode where he recounts the installation of a new weathercock on a village church is interesting: tradition demands that he takes it to each house in the village to show it, and he is treated to coffee and a shot at each house. He is totally plastered when begins to climb the spire and totally sober on his descent!

Olliver notices the gradual rural depopulation as the flight to the cities continues, and the continuing gentrification of the desirable areas of the region. He clearly loves walking, deploring our increasingly sedentary world where few make the effort to get out on their feet and encounter the natural world and engage with it. A voice crying in the wilderness, maybe, but it’s a great pleasure to accompany him on his travels.

Literature in translation

April 7, 2014

I wish I were able to read literature in more than two languages (English and French), but none of my other efforts at learning languages have been good enough so far. I do have a major issue with what I have to call English language imperialism: the idea that there is so much already available writing in English from English-speaking countries, such as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and so on, that we don’t need to bother with translating writers from other languages… as if nothing worthwhile were being written in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and I don’t know what else. This reminds me of how few films from other countries make it as far as being subtitled and then shown in English cinemas or on TV.

From my limited experience, I have found that much of what is being written in other languages is rather more interesting, challenging and relevant – I will develop this idea in a future post – and English readers are missing out on an awful lot of great literature. I always browse bookshops whenever I’m in France, and I look when I’m in Germany: most contemporary and classic English and American literature has been translated and is available, at reasonable paperback prices (another issue there!) and there is a huge amount of writing from many other countries that has been translated into French or German, of which I’ve never heard, and which never makes its way into English bookshops. My already groaning ‘waiting to read’ shelf always gains a few more inches after a visit to France.

I went back through my reading log: so far this year seven out of the twenty books I’ve read were not originally written in English, and last year, 40 out of the 107 books read were translations, or written in French. And it does seem weird that if I want to read an interesting new Polish novel, I’ll have to read it in French… Currently I’m reading Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican, who has been translated into English.

So, what is going on? Are we simply short of translators from other languages into English? Given the catastrophic decline in the study of foreign languages in this country (only between five and six thousand A Level MFL candidates in the country last year?) perhaps this has something to do with it. Is it that translations do not have the necessary commercial potential in this bean-counting country? But then, surely, a good Russian novel translated into English has a far greater potential readership world-wide than the same novel translated into French or German?

What wouldn’t I have been able to read without my French? Many of Ismail Kadare‘s novels (Albania); much of Milan Kundera‘s criticism (Czech Republic); Agota Kristov‘s bizarre novels (Romania); many of Amin Maalouf‘s novels, and his history (Lebanon); Eric Emmanuel Schmitt‘s challenging alternative future about Hitler (France); some of Naguib Mahfouz‘ fiction (Egypt); Ella Maillart‘s travel writing was mostly originally published in English but is now only available in French translation (!); most of Sylvain Tesson‘s travel writing remains only in French, as does that of Bernard Ollivier and AnneMarie Schwarzenbach (Switzerland)…

However, I already have enough books waiting to be read, so perhaps none of this really matters. And yet, I’d hate to be missing something out there…

Ollivier: La vie commence à 60 ans

May 5, 2013

51+U8MrxdVL._AA160_I’ve written about Bernard Ollivier’s epic walk along the Silk Route in earlier posts; this is more personal and biographical, and explains more of his thinking about life. I decided to read it as I approach the ‘six-0’ in a short while, and I found it quite inspirational.

One of his major ideas is that walking solves everything, and I agree with him: he discovered this by walking from Paris to Santiago di Compostella in Spain, and I read his book while on a walking holiday in the hills of Luxembourg. He explains how he came up with the idea of walking the Silk Route, how he planned it and the reactions of family and friends to the exploit. There is honesty in the way he approaches ageing and its inevitable effects, and coming to terms with these; plenty of material for thinking about here. Above all, it’s an attitude of mind which I’d hope to emulate. One can’t escape growing older and gradually weaker, but one doesn’t have to be oppressed by it; being retired brings opportunities and freedoms along with it.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche III

November 16, 2010

51KKE2v8M1L._AA160_The final volume covers the last two sections of his journey, from Samarkand to Turfan, across the Taklamakan desert, and then from Turfan to Xi’an, where he completes his walk, at the age of 64 (!) of somewhere between eleven and twelve thousand kilometres.  The achievement is astonishing – he realises at the end that he is possibly the only person ever to walk the entire length of the Silk Route.  The section in China is rather weird as he knows nothing of the language, meaning that his contact and communication with people is somewhat restricted, and yet he has many friendly contacts and encounters with people. He communicates a powerful sense of the dynamism of the Chinese as a people, reinforcing my impression that China is the nation that will mould the 21st century.

I really enjoyed these books.  If you read French, read them.  If you know someone who will translate them for English readers, tell them.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche II

November 16, 2010

51c4INK4KQL._AA160_A year later, he’s back on the road, in the most interesting of the three volumes, in my opinion, as he walks through Iran, heading for Samarkand. Given that Iran seems such a closed society to us in the West, characterised mainly by its nuclear ambitions and its – as presented though our media – rather bizarre regime, it was really refreshing and eye-opening to read of an ordinary person’s travels through this country, and his encounters with ordinary Iranians, their lives, cares and friendliness.  He had problems and difficulties at times, because of the regime and its restrictions, but I found myself warming to the place and the people second-hand, as it were, through his account.  Bernard does revive one’s faith in human nature.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche 1

October 18, 2010

51rBtL2fDoL._AA160_ I’ve been fascinated by the Silk Road/ Silk Route, and descriptions of travel along it, for a number of years; there are a lot of very interesting accounts out there.  But Bernard Ollivier was a sixty year-old retired journalist when he decided to walk from Istanbul to Xian, carrying only a backpack and trusting to fortune.  He didn’t do it all in one go, but planned a route carefully to allow him to complete a section one year, go back home to Normandy and then go back and begin again where he’d left off, the following year…

This volume follows him across Turkey almost to the border with Iran, when he is floored by amoebic dysentery and eventually evacuated as a medical emergency, and taken back to Istanbul.

He’s trusting (sometimes to the point of naivete) and open to all encounters and situations, and meets a wide variety of people as he walks.  The standard reactions to him are that he must be insane to walk – so many people want to offer him lifts – and that, as a European, he must be very rich, and therefore worth robbing.

The book is a straightforward account of his travels; it could have done with a better map.  I admire him for his guts and energy, and his willingness to encounter the world when so many of us seem increasingly to be afraid of ‘the other’.

I’ve begun the second volume…

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