I read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard in Ohio anticipating a trip to Kathmandu, via Abu Dhabi, where I arrived one bright day at the end of October. In the book, Matthiessen descends to grey Kathmandu after two months climbing the pristine crags of the Himalayas. In the city, the planar snows can appear only as an afterimage, a ghostly trick of the eyes. Matthiessen has not seen the elusive snow leopard he hoped to find, which represented Zen transcendence. He wanted to reach that state, but discovers that, being human, he can only approximate it. That, he decides, is enough. Returned to his worldly self, nature has explained itself and him. Where the snow lives, the Sanskrit himalaya, is eternal. He, by comparison, is nothing.
While only 13,000 of 800,000 visitors to Nepal last year trekked the protected areas Matthiessen explored, everyone gets scaled to insignificance by the view on the horizon. Descending towards the airport, the low mountains are on every side, and it is easy to imagine the alpine snow line beyond them, gleaming like an eternal Milky Way band above the verdant Kathmandu valley. I am waiting at arrivals in the visa line, having traveled here to study Nepali migrant laborers who work in the Arabian Gulf. Even though The Snow Leopard is a piece of nature writing first, perhaps Buddhist reflection second, reading Matthiessen felt like a prerequisite to being here since his novel is at the top of a short list of literature set in Nepal—and the natural world he presents is indeed spectacular. The book also gave me a hint of what being small among the Himalayas feels like. On the peaks, Matthiessen must maintain a simian crawl along a high ridge and suffer blinding snow. He howls unthinkingly, prone in his sleeping bag, bent by the mountain into his vital self. He observes he has fallen away from history. He sees the bounds of his existence more concretely than anything else, remembering Einstein’s observation that “the only view is that of the observer.”
Matthiessen is not really alone—he accompanies George Schaller, a preeminent field biologist. Along his ascent he encounters villagers, travelers, his hired porters and sherpas. But he does isolate himself from them, disappearing the locals into the landscape. I found the resulting images not inhumane, but certainly unhuman. Encountered villagers have dirt as skin. His porters and sherpas become huddled shoeless stumps in snow, as if they cease to exist as bodies at all. Which, in a manner, they do. On Matthiessen’s trek, the physical is the spiritual. Accordingly, in this heavenly realm, the only passersby he sees are innocent children or helpful augurs of the weather. Among his porters and sherpas he takes their fortitude, quickness to joy, and trust in life against the mountain’s lunar conditions as indications that they hold the Buddhist transcendence to which he aspires. That view does not alter in response to hints that some sherpas do suffer under their austere surroundings because they are much poorer than Matthiessen; they skim blankets and bargain for marginally higher pay. Matthiessen admits to seeing poverty below the tree line, but when he sees symptoms of it among his guides in the snowy desert, he castigates it as laziness and greed. Theirs are decidedly mortal behaviors, and mortal is a general category Matthiessen is trying to escape by trekking skyward. He spends the descent reconsidering his judgments. But when he requires the pristine view, he makes people around him disappear at will. He adopts a clear worldview to steel himself against the mountain: being able to climb transcendently is virtue, succumbing to it is vice.
When first I read The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen seemed to me to have a traveler’s solipsism. But on my pre-travel reading list had also been The Dog, Joseph O’Neill’s recent novel set in Dubai. Matthiessen’s unhuman dreamscape echoed familiarly—and perhaps surprisingly, with the Gulf, where construction laborers (often Nepali) are widely described as being disappeared into the city skylines they build. As with The Snow Leopard’s titular species, dogs in The Dog do not appear. Like the Himalayas, Dubai is a pristine landscape and in it there is another lone traveler, who I’ll call by his first initial, X. X escapes to Dubai from his mid-life’s wreckage in New York, having landed a position as Family Officer for a fortune-wielding Beiruti family. He hopes to be decent in Dubai, a reputation he feels he has fallen from back at home, and in that spirit, X tries to leave a tip for his apartment cleaner. That is where the disappearances begin.
Offered in an envelope marked clearly, the small bills are never accepted and no maid takes them when offered personally, either. X almost chases one woman, asking her to take his dirhams, but no one will. The Emirates’ legal system makes these women vulnerable to false accusations of stealing money, X surmises. He is just as vulnerable, he ultimately finds, to being so framed. X is a white-collar worker, but he’s positioned much more like a more vulnerable migrant and similarly subject to government scrutiny.
But even after X begins cleaning his apartment himself, what the maids represent still threaten, viscerally pushing him into horror. He admits that “[he] began to feel a fearful disgust at these scurriers as they intermittently appeared out of the walls and concealed spaces of the buildings … [it] was the repugnance one feels on coming upon vermin.” Despite himself, X believes in the absolute infallibility apartment complex names like The Aspiration and The Solution suggest. He knows the confident skyscrapers and their confident city do not repair the scorched earth behind him in New York, but without recourse to anything else he wants to believe they might.
In both books the laborers ruin the view, I think to myself, shuffling towards the Entry Visa kiosks. I recall the Nepal Department of Foreign Employment website, which features a large banner image: on the left, the Himalayas, on the right, a glass city skyline, spanned in alluringly short distance by an ascending airplane traveling away from Nepal. And in fact, from this squat ex-military airport, 1,500 Nepalis leave for jobs in the Arabian Gulf every day. Both of these nodes in the migration pattern I am studying seem to produce aloof inhabitants, remote adventurers. It is a position of power, to be able to ignore. Perhaps Matthiessen and X, both wealthy middle-aged New Yorkers, bring that powerful perspective from home, fixing themselves on the singular horizons they could take as their right, of sorts, having come so far to chase their better selves.
But if they once thought they could will their destinations into being so satisfying upon arrival they seem to have left that all behind. In their new, temporary lands, X and Matthiessen are solipsistic—but also always vulnerable, always inferior, always becoming and never arrived. Futurist Dubai and the ancient Himalayas disorient each of them by threatening to diminish them to some dangerous point of disappearance.
For example, they try to keep their eyes on the perfect skylines that surround them. X follows the rising towers outside his windows in the hopes of rising along with them the way Matthiessen looks at the natural world around him instead of the people within it. But both have to rely on outside belief systems to do this: Matthiessen on Buddhist laws, X on logical ones. X interrupts his otherwise fast-paced and darkly funny observations with a many-page philosophical proof demonstrating that by donating 37 percent of his income to human rights organizations, he satisfies his obligations to abused migrant workers, like, he fears, the maids. The recourse to reason insists vigorously that X is in control against the obvious signs that he may not be. In much the same way, on the ascent towards Crystal Mountain, Buddhist teachings keep Matthiessen on the light side of the mountain, where everything manifests transcendence, shoving away the creeping reality that so strictly adhering to those categories of vice and virtue does not necessarily lead to enlightenment, that his may be the wrong way.
The heights here are physical. If the odd couple of Dubai and the Himalayas share anything, it is superlative verticals: the tallest man-made structure, the tallest nature-made structure. Between this unlikely pair of locations there is a strange historical link: the vertical dislocation offered naturally among the Himalayas has been mechanically reproduced in heady Dubai, for our travellers, anyway. Indeed we get the sense that these vistas produce vertigos just as mental as physical. It would explain why both insist on outside proof, religious and secular, to demonstrate they, as individuals, should not be so reduced, warped out of their normal frames of reference.
It makes sense; Dubai, as O’Neill suggested in The Paris Review recently, is considered the contemporary non-place exemplar. But I think a better way to describe it is how X sees it. Dubai’s sublime dimensions produce the sense that he and everyone around him are insignificant, particulates among disparate loners. Matthiessen on the mountain is just as small. The reputation for alienation is ambiguously place-based here; for many people, after all, Dubai and the Himalayas are home. But both places are more traveled than settled, and there is something particular about being in transit in both. I am reminded of it when I notice that Matthiessen, X, and migrants all have a particular anxiety: they exist between—and between life and death at that.
It sounds extreme, but death is the threat against which Matthiessen and X shield themselves by refusing to see weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and it is death that menaces these characters when they see systems so much bigger than themselves. In Dubai, after cutting off life in New York, X lives a “posthumous” existence. Matthiessen, mourning his wife’s recent, early passing, is in-between lives and in the shadow of death. He marches towards the heavens with Death as his companion, seeing in the world around him shrouds and doomsday, skeletons and corpses. I have always thought legal death is an apt term for how migrant laborers get trapped between states, between their laws, between private middlemen, their rights hanging dead, useless defended by international law, somewhere over the Indian Ocean. All desperate migrants have to make an effort just to exist and avoid whatever existential unknowns they think they may succumb to.
The airport banner spanning mountain and glassy skyline looks gimmicky. But I can understand in this context why it jauntily airbrushes danger, using Photoshop to awkwardly erase the distance of the Indian Ocean so that it looks as though the small migrants in the image are walking from Nepal straight into Dubai. In this impossible geography, dislocation has been erased. Because of course dislocation is the result of leaving for two years abroad with just an employer name, job description, two-day training course, and a plane ticket. Given that they know the risks they take and costs they pay, men who have worked skilled jobs in the Gulf—a small sample notably distinct from much-discussed construction workers—choose to observe instead that Gulf cities are “world class.” Later in the week, once I am out of this airport and into Kathmandu, I will hear repeatedly that the Gulf offers unparalleled wages and professional advancement. This is what is said by those lucky to have returned and to be able to go back. Like Matthiessen and X, they try to keep their vistas, what they have seen and scaled, as their own. They choose to believe the special relativity Einstein proved, that the only view is that of the observer.
Sahiba Gill is Assistant Editor at The Common.