Travel Writers: Norman Lewis

Right now, I’m reading this wonderfully quirky travelogue named In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwick. It’s basically about this British man’s walking and hitchhiking trek across Patagonia to meet people , many ex-pats, and see fossils. He talks about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and other bandits. It’s wondrous so far but I’m not done with it yet. However, tt put me in the mind of another less traditional travel works.

One of my favorite travel writers is Norman Lewis, a British journalist and writer. His best book is a bit unconventional for a travelogue since it is called Naples ’44. Yes, it’s his diary of his time spent in Naples, Italy during World War II. He was an intelligence officer with a keen eye for the period. When you think of travel books, you don’t necessarily think of war or occupation.

My grandfather was stationed in Naples during the war so I was really excited about reading this particular book. My grandfather had these incredible stories about his time there. One of my favorite stories was when he met some nuns in the fields outside of Naples. However, life was really hard for folks in Southern Italy at the time. The nuns didn’t have shoes so they were using paper on their feet. So he decided to go buy nurses’ shoes for them. However, the MP monitored the transaction and followed him to the fields. When he got there, they tried to arrest him for participating in the black market. He explained that he was buying them for these nuns. The lead officer got really flustered and told him, “Well, give the ladies their shoes.”

My grandfather gave us a sense of the hunger and deprivation but Norman Lewis filled in a few details that Grandpa did not include. The writer talked about how the locals used the military government to punish their enemies. People would snitch on others for smuggling or stealing. The MPs would have to arrest them, even though the activities were done out of desperation by the almost the entire population. Mr. Lewis really disliked being used as a tool for petty jealousies.

But there were happier moments amidst the hunger and suffering. He talked about the concept of a Roman uncle. Families would hire a man to pretend to be an uncle from Rome as a guest at funerals. The uncle of Rome was the equivalent of a millionaire. One man-made  a living playing the uncle. He also talked about the beautiful superstitions and traditions that have lasted for hundreds of years. There is a chapter accounting a religious procession with the patron saint to ward of the lava from the eruption at Mount Vesuvius. Absolutely stunning account.

Norman Lewis wrote other books. I’ve only read A View of the World and A Dragon Apparent so far. The former is a series of short articles from his travels. He has this amazing nose for adventure and history; he always is in the right place at the right time. For instance, he interviewed Hemmingway while Castro and the other revolutionaries are in the mountains. Mr. Lewis happens to be in two African countries on the eve of their independences. Amazing stuff. There is also rather long, heartbreaking article about the genocide against Brazilian indigenous peoples. He considered it to be his most important work.

A Dragon Apparent is his tour through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It’s not his best. It smacks a little of a colonial power observing the “natives.” But it’s an interesting view at the Indo-China in the 1940s/1950s.

Anyway, that’s all for now.

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