Victor Segalen (1878-1919) was a doctor and archaeologist who travelled extensively in Polynesia and China. He was also a great poet, and as befits an admirer of Gauguin and Rimbaud, the journey made in this, his last and most important work, is not so much between points on a map, as between the imagined and the real. Journey to the Land of the Real (Equipée in French) is “not a poem about a journey, nor is it the travel diary of a wanderer’s dream.” In fact, it is the summation of the author’s life as both traveller and poet, and a summation all the more surprising because he was to die in highly mysterious circumstances soon after it was written.
Journey to the Land of the Real appeared posthumously in 1929 and tells, in part, of Segalen’s expedition through China to the borders of Tibet in the years of the First World War. It recounts both real adventures in a country now lost to time (a tremendous river descent, for example), but more abstruse and unknowable events too. Segalen described his book as lying “between what one dreams of and what one does, between what one desires and what one obtains; between the summit conquered by a metaphor and the altitude reached on foot by exertion … between the winged dance of the idea and the tough march along the road.” Segalen the traveller returned home, undoubtedly changed by his experiences; but Segalen the poet immediately set out on another journey from imaginary to real: that of casting into words the images of his travels, so that they might unfold anew in the mind of the reader.
Here is a masterpiece that effortlessly takes its place among the classics of “travel writing” precisely because it is so much more than that; among its brief chapters are consummate prose poems that reveal a lucid, eloquent and very likeable author at the height of his powers.
Segalen’s works have taken a long while to be appreciated. In France he is now often bracketed with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michel Leiris as one of the first writers to bring a post-colonial perspective to the encounter with foreign cultures. He was, of course, the earliest of these three, and proposed a “theory of exoticism” opposed to the homogenisation inflicted by imperialist norms and their agents: colonial administrators and the Christian missionaries (who suffer particular scorn in this book). This underpinning makes Journey to the Land of the Real particularly modern despite its date of composition.
Translated and introduced by Natasha Lehrer.
Atlas Press, 2016
Publisher: Atlas Press
Type: hardback with decorated endpapers