Between wars and epidemics I’ve lately found myself escaping into literature. Not all the time. My weekly iPhone activity statistics, which I never asked Apple to supply but they do anyway, shows that my screen time has increased a couple of hours a week since the war in Ukraine started.
I’m really talking about those charmed hours, though it’s often mere minutes, when I pick up a book in bed before I fall asleep. Or I wake up in the middle of the night and resume where I left off hoping to fall back to sleep.
The books that best seem to do the trick are those that transport you to a different time and place. I recently listened to Anthony Trollope’s 19th century masterpiece of manners and human cravenness, The Way We Live Now, all one hundred chapters of it. The volume was as an alternative to, though sometimes in conjunction with, melatonin, three milligrams. And I’m currently paying an extended visit to the small Minnesota town of Gopher Prairie, the site of Sinclair Lewis’s satirical 1920 novel Main Street.
But the work that has recently best helped me leave the woes of the world behind is Togo. It’s by my friend, teacher and calligrapher, Philip Heckscher. As the title suggests, the book is about the author’s visits to that small West African nation and several other countries in the region, such as Niger, Mali and Ghana. The trips occurred in 1969 and 1971.
By the way, Togo is self-published. Not because it doesn’t rate a commercial publisher – I wouldn’t be wasting your time if I thought it didn’t – but because Philip hasn’t even tried to find one. He told me he was dissuaded after he sat next to an important publisher at dinner on night who told him that travel memoirs don’t sell very well.
So what we have here is a highly literate and not unambitious labor of love. Togo also falls, though hopefully not through the cracks, as something between a conventional and a coffee table book. Wider than it is tall it’s filled with drawing and decoration by the author as well as evocative contemporaneous photographs by Lucas Kiers.
I interviewed the author about Togo from his home on Mount Dessert Island in Maine. One of the things that interested me was whether Philip had returned to Togo since the early Seventies. He told him he had, five or six years later, but was disappointed by his experience. “Some of the magic had disappeared,” he explained, the country, like its ruler, who came to power in a 1967 coup d’etat, increasingly anxious and withdrawn.
Philip’s book evokes a vanished time, one senses not just for the people of Togo but for the author, too. Eric Kiers, who dies of AIDS in 1994 and to whom the book is dedicated, was a friend he made while they were studying at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Relations, formerly the Woodrow Wilson School. Eric was living in Lomé, Togo’s capital, and organizing international symposia on behalf of the Society of Friends, the Quakers. Philip, who was teaching and living in a loft on West 28th street in Manhattan, was tempted by Eric’s letters depicting perpetual sunshine, the leisurely pace of life and Togo’s warm and generous people.
The book’s achievement – I’d call it a modest triumph – is the way he depicts the life of the Africans he encounters in strokes not dissimilar to those he uses in calligraphy. Philip strikes a balance between fluidity and precision, between the telling detail and the big, perhaps even cosmic, picture. I’ve rarely encountered a book that better makes familiar a culture that must have felt exotic when he first encountered it and still will to many readers.
I’m thinking of experiences such as when Philip and a couple of friends stopped the truck they were traveling through the countryside to admire the sunset. Suddenly a man’s head and shoulders emerged from a field of tall grass. He made his way towards them without hurry, one arm raised to steady the double gourd on his head. “All strangers must be welcomed,” Philip explains. The grizzled farmer lowers the gourd from his head with “grave deliberativeness,” pours out a cup of palm wine and sips it ritually before passing it to each of his guests. The impromptu ceremony complete he wishes the group farewell in his own language and continues down the road.
On another occasion Philip and Eric attend a spaghetti western – a participatory event in Lomé, films often serving as a backdrop for social life -- only to find several drenched audience members from the cheap seats sharing Philip and Eric’s chairs under the roof during a typically intense tropical downpour. Philip writes, “Resistance was futile. Everything in West Africa is shared as a matter of course, and arguments such as, ‘Hey pal, I paid for this seat,’ fall on culturally deaf ears.”
Philip told me that the book is based on his notes and journal entries. But it also seems to be grounded in something more. It’s what happens when you combine a pivotal moment, the late 1960’s, with an artist’s impressionable, openhearted youth and talent for visualizing memory. The fields and rock formations, the birds and lizards he describes, are as closely observed as the people he encounters. The result is a personal cosmology, a humble unassuming spirituality.
While the West Africa Philip knew is gone – riven by coups, ethnic violence and the damaging effects of climate change – the wisdom of that lost world, its ritual generosity, indifference to discomfort, and concept of time as malleable – is the kind of experience that holds lessons and pays dividends for the author decades after the journey has been completed. It did for me, as well.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.