The Ends of the Earth is by turns an absorbing book, a well-observed account of many journeys
The Ends of the Earth is by turns an absorbing book, a well-observed account of many journeysand an informative guide to some unusual and hard-to-visit places. What it is not, is a pleasant read. I would even be willing to bet that the author, an award-winning German foreign correspondent, broadcaster and honorary professor of literature at Humboldt University, would feel insulted if he were ever told that his work was merely amusing or entertaining. His observations have a sharp edge, he prefers creative discomfort to cushioned ease and he often seems to enjoy being disappointed, hurt and disillusioned—without apparently being depressed.
The book is a collection of essays that record the traveller’s thoughts, personal encounters and sensory observations as he visits places that might be called terminal points. There’s the Rock of Gibraltar, the Himalaya, the North Pole, the far and desolate reaches of Patagonia, Minsk, Hong Kong and Bombay, amongst many others. Bombay may seem like a strange choice, you might think, until you read the piece. As the reader soon discovers, there are many ways for one’s personal ‘Earth’ to end. We begin to see that each of us, sedentary readers safe in our own homes are also, at every moment, sitting at the thresholds of our own existence; that any place and any moment can become an ‘end’ of one sort or the other. It’s an unnerving realisation but, of course, profoundly true.
The author’s somewhat crabby and unsparing observations are a refreshing change from the politically correct travelogue that avoids any shadow of critique aimed at foreign cultures. Here, for instance, is a fragment of his description of Kathmandu’s central temple complex: “The beautiful old ladies in their shawls gob out the red juice of the betel nuts onto the ground—just one more colour—and the beggars keep rattling their empty tin bowls as though trying to prove that hunger really exists.” Or here, from Cape Town: “The black workmen on the dumpsters sit and stare at the beach like anthropologists. The white man is inherently comic, and even more so when he is a sunworshipper. A human spatula, a gourmet sublimating himself into a delicacy, by lying, turning and grilling himself in the sun, all the while promising himself beneficial effects from it.”
The friends Willemsen makes and the conversations he has along the way provide the meat of these essays, even as the locations provide the plates, cutlery and table. Girlfriends make their way into and out of the author’s life with the capriciousness of clouds, announcing their departures with brutal abruptness. One of them says “… the more I get to know you, the more difficult you become.” It’s hard to know whether this willingness to share their disapproval of him is honesty or a type of inverted exhibitionism. They are one example of ‘the ends of the earth’ —the ends of his relationships.
A much more extreme example is what the author finds in the depths of a brothel in Bombay: a madam who prostitutes her mentally-challenged daughter as a whore-cum-oracle. This passage is reported in heightened prose, like a documentary filmed in black light, with all the actors made up in green fluorescent paint and with unspeakable horrors glistening at the edge of vision. We whip our heads away but it is already too late to wipe away the images left there by the description.