Heather's Reviews > Self-Portrait Abroad

Self-Portrait Abroad by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
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Jul 05, 10

bookshelves: fiction, library-books, literature-in-translation
Read from July 03 to 05, 2010

"Every time I travel," this book starts, "I feel a very slight feeling of dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft shiver of elation. Because I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death—or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether." But the narrator's travels are often more ordinary: he's always bringing himself with him, after all. What's more, he runs into people he knows, talks about small-town European gossip, carries his usual routines around, in modified form. (In Tokyo: "Although it was pastis time, we contented ourselves with a green tea" (p 9).) He moves from airport to hotel to shop to café, but sometimes seems more focused on the in-between, on the global all-places/no-place, than on the specificities of where he is: "You arrive in Tokyo the way you arrive in Bastia, from the sky. The plane flies in a long arc above the bay and aligns with the runway to touch down. Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn't much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean." (p 7). There are times when he does experience scenes/events/people that are peculiar to a place that isn't home, but he's often flip or critical: at the On Matsuri in Nara all he says is "too bad it's raining, huh?"; in the same chapter he meets a Japanese woman who admires his work, but he just talks (to the reader, not her!) about how bad her French is—never mind that clearly he's not managing to speak to her in Japanese. This all could get old quickly, and kind of does, but then there are passages like this, which I like a whole lot:
In Hanoi, the traffic punctuates each hour of the day and almost every hour of the night. The noise of car horns never stops in the streets, it forms a permanent background noise like an uninterrupted murmur that you could almost forget if it didn't keep coming back at you, it being precisely the function of horns to attract attention, to signal and warn, to drown each other out, outhonk one another. Thousands of horns blow without a moment's silence on the streets, shrill and loud, sharp and repetitive, insistent, some quick and piercing, fired off nearby in impatient salvoes, others remote, lost, muted by their distance, mainly from mopeds and motorcycles, but also from cars and taxis, tarpaulined trucks and three-wheeled vehicles, buses and vans and sometimes even—lost in the middle of an intersection, hardly audible in the surrounding turmoil— the delicate and isolated tinkle of a bicycle bell. (pp 58-59)

At the end, though, I found myself underwhelmed/glad to be done with reading this. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood; maybe I just read this at the wrong moment. I kept wanting to like this book more than I actually did; there were moments of interest, but not enough of them.
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