The Imaginative Prose of Peter Fleming

news

By Ray Greenblatt

–NEWS FROM TARTARY–

Peter Fleming’s younger brother was Ian Fleming—of James Bond fame—who idolized his older brother. Peter was a journalist for the London Times who had been assigned to investigate events in China in 1936. Information about encroachments by Russia and Japan as well as Communists vs Nationalists in China itself was not forthcoming in the world at large. These world powers would contribute to the explosion in a few scant years that would become Word War Two.

Peter had originally traveled from Moscow to Beijing; covered by his book One’s Company. Now he would continue from Beijing, over the Himalayas, to India in seven months at a distance of three thousand miles. This second book would be called Travels in Tartary; both books were combined under one cover titled News from Tartary. On this second adventure Peter would go with Kini Maillart, a Swiss Olympic ice hockey player, sailor, and skier, who worked for a French newspaper.

Landscape

If you consult a map of China, roughly drawing a diagonal line from Beijing  across the Himalayas to Lahore India, you will realize that Peter Fleming traveled the entire breadth of China.  Terrain, including parts of the Gobi Desert, were difficult, to say the least. “The sun was well up now; the heat seemed to us terrific and was in fact considerable. The world around us jigged liquidly in a haze.” (455) “The valley narrowed, and we found ourselves marching down a gully whose walls were pock-marked with smooth caves like the flanks of a Gruyere cheese.” (452) “A yellow country, streaked here and there with red. Everywhere startlingly terraced hills of loess, grotesquer than the most outlandish ant-hills.” (282) Yet some relief existed: “Everything was deathly still; only a little bird from time to time uttered a short and plaintive song whose sweet notes echoed anomalously under those frowning cliffs.” (453) “The melodramatic mountains and the lake which glittered with a vulgar, picture-postcard blue.” (432)

Night held different fascinations: “Smoke rose with great deliberation in the sparkling air. At night footsteps fell with a curious and sullen emphasis upon the frosty ground.” (266) “The sand was silver, and the dust we breathed hung like an emanation, as of steam, around the caravan.” (370) Then the environment could quickly alter: “The wind was the curse of our life; ubiquitous and inescapable, it played the same part on the Tibetan plateau as insects do in the tropical jungle.” (359) “A dun, vaporous, impalpable wall marched up across the sky and bore slowly down on us from the west. From the dunes pale writhing snakes of sand licked out across the dark grey desert, and almost before we realized what was happening the sand storm was upon us.” (413)

Some man-made creations grounded the travelers. Their tent “looked like an abstruse practical joke.” (332) “We walked behind the lorries over a precarious bridge whose architecture seemed to be an affair of mud and mass-hypnotism.” (291) A monastery: “The maze of buildings whose small trapezoid windows, wider at the top than at the bottom, seemed to frown down on us from under lowering brows.” (325) Some villages functioned: “From behind the mud walls of a farm unseen winnowers threw up a lovely rhythmic series of golden jets which spread into fine golden clouds, then settled slowly.” (257) Others not so: “As we arrived at the inn, the building next to it—an eating-house where we had breakfasted—quietly and rather sadly collapsed, crumbling into rubble in a cloud of dust.” (294) Another town: “An unsightly, unexpected cluster of walls and roofs which grew like a wart in the middle of a vast bare plain. “ (372)

Animals played an important part in their lives. “In our empty world the animals that served us, revealing their characters by tricks of temperament or gait, bulked almost as large as human beings.” (434) “If camels can appear Byronic. Detached and skeptical, he seemed always to be something more than a camel: perhaps a prince unluckily metamorphosed.” (440) “Shining like seals, with thick necks arched heraldically, they towered over us, two splendid Badakshani chargers from Afghanistan.” (460) “There is something about a donkey which keeps your mind and spirits earth-bound. On a horse, on a camel, even on a yak, your imagination soars without much difficulty.” (504) They even meet “ Marmots, their red coats very gay in the sunshine, whistled defiance and perplexity, then scampered into their burrows with a curious flouncing gait.” (441)

Personalities

Fleming learned many Chinese character traits: “I knew how swiftly the beanstalk of procrastination grows in the soil of Asia, and how easily another day, or two or three more days, could lose themselves in the intricate Chinese labyrinth of delay.” (290) “Harrows were being dragged along with a man standing on them like a chariot-driver.” (310) “The women hobble round the puddles on bound feet, their sleek heads shining like the shards of beetles.” (301) On public conveyances: “It had struck me as odd that a large crowd had gathered to see us off. I now realized that they were not seeing us off; they were coming too.” (296) “Making one cubic foot into two and turning the Black Hole of Calcutta into an only slightly over-crowded debating hall. Sixty-eight of the seventy-two people present were impervious to the lack of elbow-room, and except in our corner the intricate pattern of humanity had a surface as smooth and harmonious as a completed jigsaw puzzle.” (283)

Our journalist observes individuals in unique ways: “One was an oldish man with a fierce dignity and an abstracted manner which cloaked, at first, his ineffectualness.” (430)  “He wore a black three-cornered hat and a rusty bottle-green coat tied round the waist with a scarf which might have been a dirty tricolour; thus clad, he looked, as he slouched along, like a minor and unsympathetic character in a play about the French Revolution.” (492) “A crude young man with a pock-marked face, whose ungovernable passion for song found expression in a deplorably limited repertoire.” (494) “He used to eke out his meaning by closing his eyes, thrusting forward his face, and waving it blindly to and fro, like a snake in a glass case. It was impossible not to like the gawkish and pathetic dolt.” (521)

People came from faraway places:  “The assistant was a raffish but charming Afghan who, with his Homburg hat tilted wildly, his defiantly folded arms, and his over-truculent stance, looked exactly like a wag in a house-party snapshot.” (508) “A Russian ‘adviser’–-dressed for the backblocks but not in uniform, admirably mounted-–trotted down the street; the bulge in his pocket, his penetrating but evasive stare, his air of furtive consequence conformed splendidly to the standards of discreet melodrama.” (543)

Tibetans were especially interesting to Fleming. “Both races dressed in the Tibetan style. Huge sheepskin robes, worn with the wool inside, were gathered round the waist by a sash, above which, and concealing it, capacious folds overhung , making  a kind of pocket in which all personal possessions, from the inevitable wooden bowl to a litter of mastiff puppies were carried.” (316) “The women’s plaits of hair were burdened with superfluous silverware like a Victorian sideboard.” (368) Two priests: “The chief lama was a fat, merry man; he had rolling eyes and a little moustache and looked exactly like a Frenchman in a farce.  The other was much thinner—a jerky cadaverous creature who hooded himself with his robe against the sun and corresponded very closely to my idea of a Martian.” (387)

“We crawled down that endless valley, a string of small, jaded automata under  the dwarfing hills.” (444) “Presently the caravan arrived, long and deliberate, eating up distance as a caterpillar eats a leaf.” (367) The people who aided Fleming and Maillart the most were Christian missionaries from all over Europe. ”The Catholic Fathers gave us a riotous reception. They were nine enormous Spaniards, of whom the younger ones looked, in their large new beards and medieval habit, like supers in a Shakespeare production. They gave us cakes and chocolate and roared with laughter at everything we said.” (295)

Style

Peter Fleming recounts quite an adventure, but his vivid style brings all elements to life. We have been witness to a number of his writing techniques; now we shall try to define them. Word choice is often striking: “He had with him a white and equally venerable pony, and on its back, wrapped in a tattered greatcoat, he rode hunched in a coma, protecting us.” (323) Describing an ancient man in an ancient region, you would never expect a relatively modern psychological word like ‘coma.’ It also stresses the irony that this feeble man could protect them? Here is a more direct look at irony. As the group of travelers was descending a dangerously steep ‘S’ turn, the Chinese road sign was unusual: “As we hurtled downwards the recurrent ‘!’ atoned for its inadequacy as a warning by its charming aptness as a comment.” (297) Understatement is closely linked to irony: “Sitting in a small ornate room containing no fewer than eight far from unanimous clocks.” (329)

Fleming’s imagery is strong. Here is a reference to chickens not generally known but true: “Sinkiang seemed much farther away even than it had in Peking, and we had already become like a hen with its beak to a chalk line, hypnotized by the next step, blind to all beyond it.”  (288) A more direct use of simile: “The flames licked through the camp as swiftly as a striking snake.” (364) The author has used a snake comparison in different ways throughout the book. Sometimes an entire scene becomes a symbol:  “ A carter who was taking a very elaborately decorated coffin up the road, and for part of the afternoon we travelled behind this gaudy and impressive object, in company with a little boy riding on a donkey and carrying a white rabbit in his arms. It was all like some sort of fable.” (310)

The author’s beginning to a chapter is often powerful: “June opened with a villain’s smile.” (433) His closing is as striking: “It was a good moment: the last of its kind for a long time.” (313) Sounds: “Bugles brayed thinly.” (313) Not only is alliteration strong tying the bugle to its sound; but bugles are often played on the back of donkey or mule. Repetition: “We were sick of suspense, sick of unprofitably collating rumours, sick of the jungle of bureaucracy in which we were benighted.” (322) ‘Sick’ reinforces how difficulties had piled upon them.  And yet, through all these travails Fleming is not without humor.  His traveling clothes are filthy, but he has saved some clothes for visiting. However, the box containing them has fallen into green gutter water: “I had now to decide whether to enter Kashgar disguised as a lettuce, or looking like something that had escaped from Devil’s Island.” (534)

Philosophy

For a young man in mid-twenties, Peter Fleming was not only courageous to take on this assignment but wise beyond his years. Here are some observations he made on a wide variety of topics in his unique manner:

“Here everything that was not of local manufacture had a history behind it, a long itinerary and an outlandish pedigree of owners.” (489)

“We were always hungry all the time.” (367)

“We were on our own; the odds against us had lengthened fantastically, but from now on, every stage, every ruse, every guess that helped us towards the west would be a very personal triumph.” (309)

“A hard journey makes you curiously tender to even your most maddening companions.” (392)

“There had been a long prelude to this comic expedition, but it had yielded a sufficiency of far-fetched generalizations couched in three-pile, fire-proof, Printing House Square prose.” (258)

“To pose rigidly before a faded, tattered, manorial back-cloth on which segments of unimaginable architecture framed startling gouts of boskage.” (318)

“A large crowd, most of whom had for us—I liked to think—the ephemerally proprietorial fondness which menagerie elephants inspire.” (332)

“There are times when this base craft, this pushing of a pencil across a piece of paper, stands suddenly justified.” (336)

“You fell sometimes into a meditation which blotted out a segment of the march, so that when you returned from the far-off things and places that had filled your mind you remembered the country you had passed through hazily.” (360)

“Just outside, our horses munched their barley, making as charming and soporific as the sound of running water or of waves upon a beach.” (363)

“We were both adaptable and fairly phlegmatic; and we were both fatalists, as all travelers, and especially travelers in Asia, ought to be.” (398)

“You knew by now the technique of enduring long marches—how helpful is a train of thought, how it pays to have a half-remembered quotation, a half-worked-out idea, as iron rations for the intellect: something on which the mind can dwell, ignoring the body.” (447)

“They stood for freedom and backblocks; they stood for the luck which had always dogged me while I wore them. And it is not, after all, every pair of boots in which you can travel, sockless, for several months without discomfort.” (589)

“Anglo-India, starched and glossy, stared at us with horror and disgust.” (594)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/News-Tartary-Journey-Across-Central/dp/1838600345

Peter Fleming (1907-1971) wrote a book, Brazilian Adventure, about exploring Brazil in 1933. He then wrote two books about traversing China in 1936. He went on to fight bravely in World War II as a captain receiving an OBE. In the 1950’s he wrote articles for the Spectator Magazine, collected into four books of essays. All of his writing offers poetic insights into the world at large. Ironically, he died of a heart attack at age sixty-four while hunting in Scotland.

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

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