At 26, I had a rich — a dangerous — sense of knowing it all. I was living in New York City and I had a 25th-floor office in Rockefeller Center, from which I could look out on a jungle of other high-rises. I’d only recently emerged from college and I hadn’t seen much of the world, though my job, implausibly, called for me to write palpitating, first-hand accounts, every week, of places I’d never visited (worked up from colleagues’ reports) for Time magazine. I had no dependents and few responsibilities and, though I’d traveled widely in South and Central America and grown up between England and California, I knew next to nothing about the East.
Then I made a near-fatal mistake, which probably saved my life. I decided to take a three-week holiday to Thailand and Burma and Hong Kong. I got into a Japan Air Lines plane and, a couple of days later, I was bumping through the joss-sticked darkness in Bangkok, red lanterns banging against storefronts, dancers of indeterminate sex fluttering their palms in roadside temples, barely-dressed girls slinking out of bars along little neon-lit lanes raucous with the thump of rock ‘n’ roll.
I’d never seen anything like this — so charged and beyond my reckoning; the day I came back from my trip, I made plans to return, five months later. And then again, five months after that. And then, the next year, for another four months. And, the following year, for life. There was something in both the beauty and the darkness of the area that kept pulling me, beyond the limits of my understanding, into places in myself (and in the world) I hadn’t taken the trouble to uncover yet. I couldn’t say what I found would be consoling — or flattering — but I knew that not looking behind the door would be a kind of death.
That sense of near-compulsion has never left me, though I’ve been to Thailand more than 60 times by now, gone back again and again to Vietnam and Cambodia, even written stories and articles and film-scripts set there. One day, along the Mekong River, a couple of hours out of Luang Prabang, in Laos, I went into a cave full of Buddhas and found I couldn’t leave.
Anxious, my longtime Japanese sweetheart came over and told me it was time to go. I stayed where I was. “Our boat is about to depart,” she said.
“I don’t want to go.”
Finally she pulled me out. But when we were out in the daylight, I said, “I have to go in again.”
Later I would learn that these caves had sheltered thousands of Laotians during the bombings of the Vietnam War. They were rich with ghosts and unburied spirits for the locals. But what I was responding to was something more alluring: the Buddhas that stood at the back of the opening, whose tapered arms and unswerving gazes seemed to beckon me.
Finally my companion came in to where I was standing again, recited the Heart Sutra in Japanese at high speed and dragged me out again. To this day, in 26 years of friendship, she’s never seen me, she says, in such a state of possession.
I thought of all this when I met one of the startling discoveries of my recent life, secreted in plain sight like a temple in a jungle, Harry Hervey. I’d never heard of the precocious American traveler and prolific novelist until a passionate excavator of Indochina literature brought him to my attention earlier this year; I’d barely known that Americans were traveling in Southeast Asia in the 1920s, even though Bali was filling up with foreign artists eager to record their discovery of Paradise and British novelists were fanning out to Mexico and Ethiopia and Tibet.
But once I began to surrender to Hervey’s spell, I started — as, perhaps, this complex, covert soul of fictions and elaborations also did — to lose all sense of where fact ended and fiction began; I found myself drawn by his vision, for all its occasional clunkiness and excess, much as I’d been drawn by a temple I once saw, unforgettably, in a dream in 1987. In certain moods and moments, I found, few writers could transport you more potently. I began to succumb to the drift of a river Hervey describes, the lure of a sleepy afternoon in the sun. I could all but taste the stillness he evokes atop a temple in Angkor, towers rising “like guttered candles.” I could inhale, I felt, the dust as I almost began to sweat. “A drum was beating in a monastery somewhere in the thickets along the river and it made a ghost prance on the silence.”
In his great Indochina book of 1926, King Cobra, Hervey gives you a dreamy, wide-awake sense of an Indochina where white-suited Frenchmen were carried in rickshaws through the streets of Phnom Penh at mid-day and it took six weeks to sail from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and back (from Saigon to Vientiane took 14 days by “the swiftest travel possible”). But more than showing you a world that has disappeared, he gives you a world that will surround you if you’re in those streets tomorrow (the public park in Saigon “after nightfall alive with prowlers innocent and otherwise”). And, most of all, he has the rare traveler’s gift of evoking for you all that you can’t quite see and urging you to join him on a journey towards what you’ll never quite touch.
Great travel books give you journeys from which the traveler (perhaps the reader) comes back transformed, a mystery to himself. Suddenly you can no longer trust what you knew so firmly a day ago; suddenly all sense of “home” and “abroad” — of “you” and “I” — dissolves. A real trip turns you around so that you leave behind the person you were and maybe the one you wanted to become. Hervey may have embellished his real experiences, and drawn liberally from the books that fired his imagination before he left home — as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and Bruce Chtawin did — but the young American who loved to devour exotic romances in his Southern boyhood transforms himself (and so, perhaps, his readers) by giving us a traveler venturing so deep into the heart of Southeast Asia that soon he’s almost describing it from the inside out.
The man who so casually writes of Saigon as a “half-caste lady” at the beginning of King Cobra, and who describes the Vietnamese city as a “pseudo-French hussy,” turns, before our eyes, into a man who seems to have left most judgments behind as he lies out on a pirogue, heading toward the unknown, reflecting on “immortality” and feeling “very close to something I had always wanted to understand.” He’s not an English traveler, like Norman Lewis a generation later, giving us droll and beautiful descriptions of Indochinese culture and customs; he’s not simply recounting what he saw, as Helen Candee did in her exuberant Angkor the Magnificent, published two years earlier. Rather, Hervey feels like a man possessed, someone who’s lost his heart (perhaps his mind) to what’s around him, and has given himself over to the new world he’s discovering. The result is that we feel something at stake in every sentence and encounter and gain an exhilarating sense of not beginning to know what Hervey will find next in Indochina (or what Indochina will find in Hervey).
This goes with a peculiar mix of brusqueness and lyricism that gives one a sense of a narrator in motion, “fluid” (in one of his favorite terms), and always ready to be converted into something else. Put differently, he’s a poet who’s never lost his common sense — or a healthy skepticism about his own romanticism. A river “is burnished gold,” he writes in King Cobra, early on, “which is to say, it is exceedingly muddy.” A woman he sees in a shop is “more than enchanting…she might have been some priestess of the Khmers.” But “As we left the shop the divine Apsaras followed us with a proprietorial gaze, then snatched the money from the dealer and sat down to count it.” Hervey is always eager to surrender to the sensual tug of a foreign culture, but he’s not allergic to the spiritual, and it’s often hard to tell one from the other. This means that we never know, from one moment to the next, whether we’re going to meet a rhapsodist or a fury of disenchantment: “One of Indo-China’s dreamy and disconcerting charms,” he writes, “is its abundance of misinformation.”
I’ll confess that when I began King Cobra, I formed quite a distinct impression of its author: a senior political intelligence officer, I decided, or a slightly withered Asia hand who was favoring us with his unvarnished impressions of a continent he’d been crisscrossing for decades. A strongly opinionated figure who could be a bit of a pain to travel with, though was undeniably compelling in his forays into the unknown. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that he was in fact in his mid-twenties when he wrote King Cobra; the book was not the summation of a long acquaintance but rather an excited torrent of first impressions, during which we actually see the young Texan recently emerged from the Georgia Military Academy move beyond his summary judgments to something more open and agnostic.
It may well be his descriptions that grab you first, whether of the “dusk-frail” scarves he sees in Cambodia or of the trees enfolding the temple of Preah Khan, as they do to this day. Hervey’s verbs and insects alone show you what a natural writer he was, for all his sometimes purple prose and green perspective: “Fireflies stitched the dusk like luminous needles.” “Insects rasped about a yellow-shaded lamp.” And, true to his sensibility, he is always as alert to what’s in the soil as to what’s up in the air (a romancer, you could say, who hasn’t turned his back on real life): “Water- buffaloes lie nostril-deep in the pools along the way; butterflies wheel drunkenly over the piles of dung.”
He’s never slow to pass reckless and sweeping judgments and, 90 years on, most readers will notice how much manners and customs have changed since his time. No one today would dream of writing, “Most Cambodians are pleasantly lazy” (even if they think it) or averring that the “natives” (as they so often are in Hervey’s prose) are “gentle and with no complexities—yet capable of terrible things.” The air of King Cobra is thick with words like “indolent” and “primitive” and Hervey has no hesitation in writing, of a woman in Laos, that she was “a soft, wild thing, warm as her golden skin.”
It’s not that visitors don’t entertain the same thoughts and impressions today: We’ve simply learned to dress up our responses differently or to keep them to ourselves. Yet the more I read in Hervey, the more I felt that he might not always be a subtle writer, but he was certainly an intuitive one: His claims are large ones, but that does not always make them wrong. And what’s most striking today is not all the ways in which he sounds like any traveler of his time, but all the ways he doesn’t.
To a powerful extent, the young American in French Indochina refuses to play along with the prevailing attitudes of his time; he mocks those Frenchmen who condescend towards the people they’re ruling and, again and again, he refuses to say that either race is “Superior.” Although he often falls into the local habit of talking of “savages” and writing of local Buddhas, say, as “barbaric little images,” he more often delights in admiring those colonizers who admit to having been taken over — remade — by the culture they’re so confident they’re remaking. “Man is at his worst,” Hervey writes, in one of his bracing moments, “in the role of altruist.”
He wasn’t anyone’s fool or subject, in other words, and he wasn’t about to find all good either in the locals or in their European rulers. This gives his writing an unusual freshness — it does not run along predictable lines, even if it has familiar moments — and its author seems always ready to be surprised. He’s not a seeker after “esoteric truths,” he asserts at one point, but he’s clearly not a defensive cynic either. Everything is up for grabs in his path, and we’re in the hands of a real explorer who has traveled all the way to Indochina to see what he can learn from its largely untracked open spaces.
I love the uncensored directness and candor of his writing, which gives it at times the quick pungency of a Paul Theroux, to cite a more recent, very American traveler in these parts. Hervey thinks nothing of frankly admiring the local beauties that he passes or admitting, when he comes to a climax in a trip, that he’s “tired and sore.” He openly notes that the romance between the cultures of East and West often comes down to a matter of sex and he doesn’t fall victim to either the elegant evasions of the Brit or the philosophizing of the Frenchman. Here is a man who will call a spade a spade, yet nonetheless be willing to drift into the spirit of acceptance and indirection he so admires in the cultures around him.
Unlike most travelers, Hervey never forgets what a presumptuous act he’s embarked upon; imagine, he notes at one point, how a Laotian would be treated if, arriving in America, he started examining the make-up on a local woman’s face. And his relative youth gives him a freshness and vulnerability you won’t find in the contemporaneous Southeast Asian travels of Somerset Maugham, say. “Generalizations upon a nation are not only banal but futile,” the young American asserts without qualification — only to give us a whole rush of new generalizations upon a nation.
At the heart of his journey, I always feel, is a quest, and around it is a question that still haunts many a traveler today: To what extent do the cultures we visit have something that we, in all our seeming affluence and mobility, lack? And how much are and should we be “conquered” by the places we’re so sure that we’re conquering? It’s no coincidence that Hervey shows us so many white men stealing Buddhas. Or that he was so consumed by Southeast Asia that he turned out six books on it in a few years, not least the novel, Congai, that he wrote as soon as he completed King Cobra, and to which he seems to allude near the conclusion of his travel book.
In the end, it’s his very openness, his eagerness to learn from the places he visits and to be taken out of his comfort zone, beyond what he knows, that gives Hervey’s story such a pulsing vitality. He really has come as pilgrim more than as master, one feels (one of his early autobiographical novels about the exotic world was called Ethan Quest). For all the historical and archaeological facts he includes in his narrative, it’s consistently what he doesn’t understand that lends his story charm and vivacity.
As I followed, with him, young monks stepping by candlelight through the temples of Angkor; as I watched, through his eyes, a dance by torchlight among the ruins; as I tracked his intuition — and his intuitions are often as strong as his passing judgments may be questionable — of a “vast drowned city” in the jungle, I came to feel something of what draws many a foreigner into the depths of Angkor (or Laos) today. A sense of imminent discovery, of wonder, is in the air.
King Cobra imparts all the tremendous excitement of coming upon a hidden treasure in the jungles of Indochina. And as you begin to advance through it, you realize you’re holding another kind of hidden treasure in your hands. His knowingness may put you off at times; but his sense of all he doesn’t know, his readiness to travel even deeper into uncertainty can turn Hervey into a grand discovery, as he was for me — and one who deserves his place in the annals of important and undeservedly forgotten travel writing. King Cobra is one of the rare books of its time to give us an outsider’s glimpse of Indochina at a pivotal moment. Just embrace the lurid title and dive into the unexpectedness within. • 18 December 2013