Is it ungodly hot where you are, like it’s been in New York City these last weeks? Then let’s go freeze our asses off in Tibet with French author Sylvain Tesson.
One of my favorite authors (especially in translation), Tesson’s latest book, 2019’s award-winning La panthère des neiges, is published in English next week as The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet.
Tesson, if you’re unfamiliar with him, is a bit of a stunty daredevil in his far-flung travel endeavors, like driving an old Soviet motorcycle with sidecar along the route of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow to Paris, and apparently walking from Russia to India (please, PLEASE translate this one!), but he has a big, sharp sense of humor and healthy self-deprecation and a rich way of incorporating history, lore, and vivid descriptions into his storytelling. A book of his is always a worthwhile trip to take.
“I traveled around a lot, I was observed, and I was completely oblivious”: this was my new psalm, one that I repeated in Tibetan fashion, in a constant hum. It summed up my life.
His basic drive in undertaking these latest travels — tagging along with a wildlife photography crew led by the renowned animal photographer Vincent Munier on a mission to see the elusive Tibetan snow leopard — is frustration with himself and his current state, which can certainly lead to fulfilling travels and satisfying travel writing. This finds him recuperating from a bad physical injury while ruminating on a failed relationship. (I think it might be the same one that pushed him to a cabin in Siberia in winter, it sure sounds like it.)
It is a prosaic syndrome: you miss a person, the world takes on her shape.
Whether they would even see a snow leopard is in question. Many such expeditions fail. What I like about Tesson’s writing is how he works through his own thinking around success and failure, and although this felt like it had less emotional depth than what I’ve seen him reach previously, it still had some meaningful, if lighter, thoughts around such ideas. “If something should happen, it will be a reward. If nothing happens, you break camp and decide to start again the following day.”
Tesson is tasked with trying to keep still and quiet and just wait, not exactly his strengths. He uses the experience to shape his thoughts around the modern world and how we’ve let it invade our ways too much, and how this has influenced human behavior. This isn’t always my favorite topic despite agreeing with much of his sentiment, but it’s also interesting just to witness how he works through these ideas himself. The extremity of the Tibetan mountains, the isolation and immersion in so much still-untouched nature made for an inspiring setting.
Prehistory wept, and each tear was a yak. Their shadows said: “We are of nature, are unchanging, we are of now and always. You are of culture, malleable and unstable, you are constantly innovating, where are you headed?”
Despite always talking a lot about himself, Tesson also has a way of keeping his cards close to his chest. It’s only after finishing that you realize he used some lovely phrasing and abstract imaging to say something beautiful that didn’t actually reveal anything too deep about what he felt or how he was changed. He’s tricky, and that might be why I love his writing so much. There’s always so much to get from it, and it’s the kind of work that deserves more than one read — it’s almost deceptively simple on a first pass.
I wasn’t crazy about the translation. I was constantly looking up words that ended up being archaic or overly formal versions of words that would’ve made more sense in the context and wouldn’t have pulled you out of the narrative to wonder what exactly it was trying to say. This bothers me greatly. His other two books translated into English had seamless-feeling translations and this one seemed clunkier in comparison.
Although not my favorite of his, even a lesser book of Tesson’s is still pretty great. His usual blend of philosophy, observation, musings, melodrama that suddenly segues into humor, self-deprecation, and beautifully rendered glimpses of his strange and wild explorations are always a delight.
There was a difference between the nave and the mountain. To kneel is to wait without proof.
The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet
translated from French by Frank Wynne
published July 13, 2021 by Penguin
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.