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Brian Bouldrey's Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica [16 April, 2008]

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By Brian Bouldrey; University of Wisconsin Press; 237 pages

Travelers destroy what they seek. Brian Bouldrey once saw those words on a bumper sticker, and they haunt him throughout his walking trip in Corsica's maquis, the dense scrub that's a favorite destination for hikers. Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica is about days spent trudging and camping as Bouldrey, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University, makes his way through an alien landscape without much of a sense of direction. What’s remarkable about the book isn't just that it's astonishingly well-written, but that it's actually a travel book by a gay man that isn't about boffing the natives. Bouldrey writes about Corsica, friendship and even his dog, Grace, with sharp wit and a musing quality that only fellow walkers will recognize: the ability to be very still and collect yourself even as you keep moving forward.

Corsica is an island of 260,000 inhabitants, but there are also over 800,000 Corsicans living on the European continent, many of whom dream of independence. This fierce, if rather diasporic, nationalism is also additionally nurtured, as any reader of Asterix and Obelix comics can tell you, by deep memories of ancient internecine blood feuds: “Just a walk along the river with a pretty lady without her father's permission could begin the cycle of vendetta.”

Bouldrey’s walking companion through this proud and eccentric land is his friend Petra. Theirs is a dryly affectionate relationship, fortified by an instinctive knowledge of knowing when to leave each other alone. Faced with literally insurmountable piles of vertical rock, Petra’s solution is to assiduously apply very expensive lipstick to her lips, “her trademark gesture of desperate dignity in high places.”

As might be expected of a travel narrative, the book is filled with fleeting characters memorable for their peculiarities, such as the young German who walks without a hat or sunscreen and whose rapidly burning ears lead Petra to casually declare that he will die of cancer. There’s wildlife in the form of wild pigs, which are actually domestic animals let free to roam the maquis through summer before being herded back for slaughter. Bouldrey’s observations of these life forms are interspersed with recollections of friends and family. In the hands of a lesser writer, the results would have been precious. But Bouldrey possesses a deft and light touch; he can be simultaneously funny and dry. He recalls his HIV-positive friend Adam, who departed for India, not a country known for hygiene: “When a soldier goes into battle fighting for oil or land, we praise his death as an act of courage. When you go to India with a compromised immune system, you are an idiot, and deserve to die. Don’t bother coming home, Adam.”

In what may be the most eloquent section in the book, Bouldrey describes a nighttime performance by a group of singers. The song “is of love, or dying of it, or revenge because it went wrong because, well, this is Corsica.” It ends as noisy revelers enter. Rather than fume endlessly about the intrusion, Bouldrey wisely leaves the scene where it is, and comments on his own ambivalence about wanting to preserve the memory forever. There are, after all two kinds of travelers. Those who destroy what they seek and those who worry endlessly that they might destroy what they seek.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 16 April, 2008

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