Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Asiatics exploits one of the oldest of plot devices—the journey—and makes the appeal of geography a basic part of the story. The exotic place names roll on in an onomastic litany; Prokosch frequently has recourse to the pathetic fallacy (Damascus is “sad” and its fields are “desolate”), but his limpid poetic prose evokes climate and brings landscapes to life with great economy of description. His towns and byways are peopled with figures who blend naturally into the whole shifting panorama. In Meshed during the month of mourning, “they prostrated themselves on the dry rutted alleyways, they scratched aimlessly and absent-mindedly at their flesh until they bled and had to weep with pain and excitement.” The Irrawaddy River is “dotted with houseboats full of short-legged sloe-eyed natives,” and on the bank can be seen “small young priests dressed in yellow hovering on the green bank like so many dandelions.”

The Asiatics is also, like that famous travel novel Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, The Prince of Abissinia (1759), in many respects a search for happiness. For most of the figures milling around in the exotic locales, a search for happiness means a search for some form of love. Mme de Chamellis concludes that the search is futile. In her cynical appraisal, no two lovers love each other equally strongly, and “wretchedness grows, little by little.” For the hero-narrator, love is “any of a million...

(The entire section is 505 words.)