A View of the World by Norman Lewis. 310pp. Eland, 2004 .
Norman Lewis’s thirty-odd books testify to a long and admirable life of travel and activism. Born in 1908, he spent his childhood in the drab London borough of Enfield — “nothing, with chips,” in his words. Forever after he sought experience. He travelled through pre-Civil War Spain and went to Arabia as a spy for the Foreign Office. In the Second World War he was posted to North Africa and Naples with the Intelligence Corps. But Lewis wasn’t really cut out to be an English patriot. He was entirely lacking in imperial chauvinism. His loyalty was to human dignity wherever he found it.
After the war he made several South East Asian and Central American expeditions. He spent summers in Spain before the irrevocable transformations wrought by commercial tourism. In late middle age his efforts were directed towards exposing the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples, particularly in South America. I only wish he had written about Australia.
Lewis died in 2003 at the age of 95. So far his posthumous legacy has been well-served by his champions. Julian Evans’ outstanding and ambitious biography Semi-Invisible Man appeared in 2008. All thirteen of Lewis’s novels remain out of print — I haven’t read any — but most of the travel books have been republished by Eland as high quality paperbacks.
Disregarding Lewis’s juvenilia — accounts of his early journeys through Spain and Arabia that were eventually rewritten from scratch — the non-fiction can be divided into five basic categories. Four books recount his travels in Asia: to Indochina (A Dragon Apparent, 1951), Burma (Golden Earth, 1952), India (Goddess in the Stones, 1991), and Indonesia (An Empire of the East, 1993). His extensive experiences in Italy and Spain inspired two retrospective memoirs each: Naples ’44 (1978), Voices of the Old Sea (about the Costa Brava, 1984), In Sicily (2000), and The Tomb in Seville (2003). He wrote book-length pieces of investigative reportage on the Sicilian mafia (The Honoured Society, 1964) and on genocide perpetrated by evangelical Christians (The Missionaries, 1988). His two-volume autobiography begins with Jackdaw Cake (1985; expanded as I Came, I Saw, 1994) and concludes with The World, The World (1996).
There are also five collections of shorter travel pieces. They were never simultaneously in print, so it isn’t surprising that their contents occasionally overlap. The Changing Sky (1959) contains nineteen pieces and is illustrated by Lewis’s exceptionally good photographs (for much of his life he operated a chain of camera shops). Ten of those early pieces were republished in the next collection, A View of the World (1986), accompanied by another ten written since 1959 including his most widely-known article, ‘Genocide’ (1969), about the destruction and enslavement of Brazilian tribes. Lewis’s dispatches from the eighties and nineties are respectively anthologised in To Run Across the Sea (1989) and The Happy Ant Heap (1999). A Voyage by Dhow (2001) gathered pieces from across thirty years. A final tally of seventy-four unique short articles across five books. They range nearly everywhere across the globe.
Few writers can make the imaginative recreation of a place truly palpable and memorable for the reader. How does Norman Lewis do it? Game for adventure and discovery, his voice is wry, gently amused, free of cynicism. The narrator, the man himself, retreats into near-invisibility; the prose also does its work without drawing much attention to itself. He writes in the tradition of Orwell — elegant but unpretentious clarity. Some writers are casual in the division of their prose into blocks of text, but Lewis is a crafter of paragraphs. They have robust internal structures and almost always contain at least one attention-grabbing element to ignite the imagination of the reader. It could be a concrete detail, a metaphor, a line of dialogue, or a piece of information. These moments register in the reading mind like splashes of colour, bring the setting to life, and with their accumulated weight, compel the reader onwards.
Consider the most vivid specifics in ‘A Quiet Evening in Huehuetenango’, which was first published (as fiction) by The New Yorker in 1956. Lewis escapes an English winter and winds up in the Guatemalan highlands. He is adept at metaphorical descriptions — in the town he sees soldiers “fishing in space with their rifles over the blood-red balustrade of the town hall” and vultures that fly over “waving their scarves of shadow” — but the details he chooses to note without such overt literary flair register even more vividly. His hotel features a garden turned into a “floral jungle” bordered by “Pepsi-Cola bottles stuck neck down in the earth.” Each table-top has a goldfish bowl “containing roses hideously pickled in preserving fluid.” A craze for American-style processed food means Lewis must eat “hygienic but emasculated fare… The whole loaf of bread and a half-pound of butter of a generation ago had wasted away to two slices of toast and a pat of margarine.” The scene is set and the adventure begins. When Lewis goes out to investigate a commotion in the street, he encounters a boy “throwing a bayonet at an anatomical chart given away with a Mexican journal devoted to home medicine.” Lewis and his driver wind up in a bar as the semi-captives of exceedingly polite bandits with “machetes as big as naval cutlasses.” Lewis is pressed to operate the jukebox for the bandits, who only want to hear one record over and over again. A deus ex machina arrives in the form of an earthquake, which Lewis cleverly defamiliarises: “It seemed unreasonable that an electric train should be rumbling through a subway immediately beneath us in Huehuetenango.”
A quiet man with expansive compassion, appalled by exploitation of the weak, Lewis celebrated societies that had not been transformed (or destroyed) by modernity. This could easily have become mere romantic nostalgia, but Lewis did not shy from exploring the violence, superstitions, and destructive codes of honour within the traditional societies he encountered. He evokes those societies in their complexity. A View of the World may have a lacklustre title, but it is a perfect introduction to Norman Lewis’s imaginative prose.
Edinburgh, December 2017
[Image CC Wikimedia Commons, Attribution agracier]