No. 7: “Golden Earth” by Norman Lewis
Travel Blog • Frank Bures • 05.25.06 | 7:53 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: Burma/Myanmar
In 1951, not long after Southeast Asia had been a bloody battleground in World War II, a quiet, unobtrusive man set off from Wales for Burma, where he would spend three months traveling for one of the classics of travel writing, Golden Earth. It was not the only classic he would write: For more than 60 years, Lewis traveled the world and wrote some 30 travelogues and novels. During his travels Lewis had his skull fractured, watched men brain each other with femurs and, at 80, tried to get into Irian Jaya to interview some tribe members who had apparently barbecued and eaten 13 missionaries. According to another (possibly apocryphal) story, Lewis was sent by Ian Fleming to check in on Ed Scott, the model for James Bond. While the two were talking, unbeknown to them Graham Greene was watching, and used the scene for “Our Man in Havana.” But Lewis was our man in many, many places: India, Guatemala, Vietnam, Sicily, Spain, the Middle East and, of course, Burma, which he wrote, “spread as a dark stain into the midnight sea.” Lewis spent three months there and the going was rough: His train from Rangoon to Mandalay was delayed when explosions damaged the rail in front and behind him. But compared to the road he traveled, Lewis’s prose is smooth. It is also full of the humor and the humanity of the people he met along the way. As Pico Iyer says, “Out of marvels he makes melodies.” “Golden Earth” shows both Burma and Lewis at their most marvelous.
Outtake from Golden Earth:
That night we slept in a jungle-clearing on the way back. There was a remnant of a hut perched on stilts ten feet high, and into it the headman, Sneg and I climbed. Every time one of us turned over, this construction swayed a little. Beneath us, the soldiers thudded with unflagging energy at their drum, and sang a soldiering song with endless verses, and an extremely monotonous air. The end of each verse would be signaled by howls of laughter. In the end, as the first wave of fever slowly spent itself, I relapsed into rambling, oppressive dreams. I was soon aroused by a discharge of shots. But it was only a soldier who had been tinkering with his Sten, which was loaded, and had shot off one of his toes.
—Frank Bures is the books editor of World Hum.