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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

A Barbarian in Asia

Henri Michaux

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To purchase A Barbarian in Asia

Title: A Barbarian in Asia
Author: Henri Michaux
Genre: Travel
Written: (1933)
Length: 186 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Barbarian in Asia - US
A Barbarian in Asia - UK
A Barbarian in Asia - Canada
Un barbare en Asie - Canada
Un barbare en Asie - France
in Ein Barbar auf Reisen - Deutschland
  • French title: Un barbare en Asie
  • First published in 1933, revised edition published 1945.
  • This edition the translation by Sylvia Beach (1949) of the 1945 edition.
  • Michaux later further revised sections of the book.
  • Jorge Luis Borges translated A Barbarian in Asia into Spanish.

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Our Assessment:

A- : pithy, incisive, cutting look at 1930s Asia through this Frenchman's eyes

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
French Studies . 4/1950 E.M.Phillips
The New Yorker . 28/5/1949 Alfred Kazin
The NY Herald Tribune . 10/7/1949 Richard Ellmann
The NY Times Book Rev. A 5/6/1949 Justin O'Brien

  From the Reviews:
  • "Imagine Arthur Rimbaud carrying his peculiar poetic vision with him to Abyssinia and describing the country, natives and customs for us. Or just fancy Lewis Carroll -- with whom Henri Michaux also has something in common -- reporting a trip to Africa. In either case the result would be somewhat like this original and stimulating refraction of the Orient through a very special personality." - Justin O'Brien, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Henri Michaux was barely thirty when he travelled to Southern and Eastern Asia. Still, he was no wild-eyed tourist, and though he designates himself a barbarian in Asia he felt no qualms in airing his opinions. The book covers a wide swathe of Asia -- India, the Himalayas, southern India, Ceylon, Malaya (from Malaysia to Bali), China, and Japan. French Indo-China is notably (and curiously) avoided.
       In staccato style Michaux notes his impressions: there are long sections of paragraphs, each only a line in length. Elsewhere he digresses and discourses in a bit more detail. His eye and tongue are sharp. He does not insist on Western superiority, but acknowledges that through his Western eyes much seems unusual, odd, and inexplicable. The impression is often not a favourable one. Michaux's lens is certainly not rosily tinted.
       Generalizations abound. Some are ridiculous, many are trenchant. The quick sequence of statements and claims makes for a powerful effect.
       It is difficult to describe what Michaux does. Here a vaguely illustrative example, about the Japanese:

A people, in fact, devoid of wisdom, of simplicity and of depth, over-serious, though fond of toys and novelties, not easily amused, ambitious, superficial and obviously doomed to our evils and our civilization.
       And over and over there are these penetrating glimpses of these foreign lands. It adds up convincingly, making for a remarkable though sometimes disturbing book.
       Sylvia Beach's translation effectively reproduces Michaux's patter. (Jorge Luis Borges translated the book into Spanish -- there's something we would be interested in seeing .....)
       Even Michaux seems to have understood that what he wrote was far from politically correct: he revised the book (in particular the part on Japan). The New Directions edition fortunately preserves the earlier (though already somewhat revised) version.
       There is a wealth of material here. Much of it is unkind, but much is surprisingly astute and still valid. Strongly recommended -- though natives of these lands might take offense.

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A Barbarian in Asia: Reviews: Henri Michaux: Other books by Henri Michaux under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See index of French literature at the complete review
  • Index of literature from and about India at the complete review
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       French poet and painter Henri Michaux lived from 1899 to 1984.

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