The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1978)

peter matthiessen the snow leopard
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. New York: Penguin, 2008 (1978). (Gift, purchased in USA).

I did not read this because it is available everywhere in Kathmandu, but because I was given it as a gift before I came. Yet it transpires that it’s the Shantaram of Nepal: “all foreigners read this book”, in the words of an enthusiastic Bombay street-side book peddlar. I have an aversion to reading things presumed to be popular amongst foreigners, considering distance from point of origin a poor arbiter of taste, so it was lucky I went into reading The Snow Leopard blind.

Originally published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is the account of author Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller’s trip through the Inner Dolpo mountains, on the Tibetan Plateau in western Nepal, in search of the rare, beautiful and elusive Snow Leopard that was said to inhabit the region.

I found it a lovely book, but alienating in many respects. Matthiessen was a student of Zen Buddhism, and while much of the text is dedicated to recounting the physical journey and the landscape, much is also spent exploring the inner changes wrought by following this spiritual path. I found myself skimming over these parts, not entirely comfortable with the easy –and all too common– conflation of physical travel and personal awakening. The Snow Leopard sits at the tail end of hippy trail travel, and because of this feels dated, but at the same time should be read, and appreciated, as very much a product of its time.

Furthermore, at times this book read like a David Attenborough nature documentary. The environment, the elements, the topography is described in rich detail, and many locals are too, but the people are generally treated as part of the landscape, or even the wildlife. At one point the text reads:

“Through Jang-bu, we question everyone about Kang La and Shey Gompa, as the crowd gives off that heartening smell of uncultivated peoples the world over, an earthy but not sour smell of sweat and fire smoke and the oil of human leather. Goats, a few sheep, come and go. Both men and women roll sheep wool on hand spindles, saying that blizzards have closed Kang La for the winter. On the roofs, culled buckwheat stacked for winter fodder has a bronze shine in the dying sun, and against a sunset wall, out of the wind, an old woman with clean hair turns her old prayer wheel, humming, humming.” (p. 138)

I wanted to know more about this isolated region in context with the rest of the country. Honing in on details can result in beautiful, specific writing, but fails to be informative, and I think all travel writing, at least to some extent, should be informative.

My edition of The Snow Leopard, published by Penguin Classics in 2008, has an introduction by Indian author Pico Iyer, a long-time admirer of Matthiessen. The year before Matthiessen traveled to Nepal, his wife died of cancer. To embark on this journey, the author left his eight-year-old son behind in the US. Throughout The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen is still grieving for his wife, and feels a lot of guilt about his son, remembering his son’s anguish at the prospect of being parted from his father for so long, and re-reading a letter from him. Iyer writes that the honesty with which Matthiessen divulges his own shortcomings, his readiness to write about those left behind, is uncommon in travel writing:

“[W]hat moves me, every time I read the book, is that Matthiessen elects to include in his story a letter and a moment that will show him in a highly unflattering light. Most travelers are guilty of a kind of infidelity when they leave their homes and loved ones, their other lives, in order to undertake a long and perilous journey–and almost all of them (I know as someone who writes about travel myself) choose to keep out from their records the less exalted, human trade-off. We like to present ourselves as conquering heroes, or lone wolves taking on the world in all its terror; we will use any literary device we can to keep out of the text the ones waiting for us at home, or the truth of what is always an uneasy compromise.” (p. xxii)

I was reminded of reading about an Indian revolutionary, I don’t remember which, who in his meticulously kept personal journals recorded the birth of his children simply as “A daughter born today.” Not because he didn’t love his children, or that he wasn’t dedicated to them, but because his journal was a space to record his political struggle. I can understand why authors may want to separate their personal lives from their subject-matter, but I agree with Iyer in feeling this is rather disingenuous in the case of travel writing. I have been writing about my move to Nepal, but I hope not to erase signs of what I’ve left behind, a palpable presence in my own mind so I would hope in much of my writing, too.

The Snow Leopardis considered a classic of travel literature today, and I think not just because of its age. Matthiessen’s influence is evident in the last book I reviewed here, Joe Simpson’s The Water People— another example of adventure meeting spiritual and personal discovery. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the sub-genre, but there are enough big questions and beautiful writing in The Snow Leopard to warrant its recommendation.


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Travel writer at Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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