The Brits– and those who have totally embraced their internal (imperial?) Brit– have a certain sardonic yet deadpan style I admire. First, the late great master Norman Lewis, from his 1951 A Dragon Apparent, about a totally- vanished Indochina:
“These Chams were aboriginal Malayo- Polynesians, the only group of that race to have accepted the civilization of Indian colonizers in the remote past. They made a great impression on Marco Polo, but judging from the account of the Dominican, Gilbert de San Antonio, who visited them in the sixteenth century, there was a nightmarish element in their civilization.It was brilliant but psychopathic, like that of the Aztecs… Stone age beliefs, like grim Easter- Island faces, were always there in the background. On certain days, San Antonio says, they sacrificed over six thousand people, and their gall was collected and sent to the king, who bathed in it to gain immortality.
“…The metaphysical appetite of South- East Asia is insatiable and its tolerance absolute. The modern Chams find no difficulty worshipping the Hindu Trinity,the linga, the bull of Siva, a pythoness, Allah– who is believed to have been an eleventh century Cham king– plus Mohammed and a number of uncomprehended words taken from the Muslim invocations and regarded as the names of deities, each with its special function.They are inclined to give their children such names as Dog, Cat, Rat to distract them from the attentions of evil spirits. For this reason there were several Cham kings named excrement”.
Next, American Paul Theroux, who has read the masters.
“I bought four oranges at the station, made a note of a sign advertising horoscopes that read MARRY YOUR DAUGHTERS BY SPENDING RS. 12 ONLY, shouted at a little man who was bullying a beggar, and read my handbook’s entry for Nagpur (so called because it is on the River Nag:
“Among the inhabitants are many aborigines known as Gonds. Of these hill tribes [sic] have black skins, flat noses and thick lips. A cloth around their waist is their chief garment The religious belief varies from village to village. Nearly all worship the cholera and smallpox deities, and there are traces of serpent worship”
This passage was so reminiscent of Norman Lewis (except for, possibly, the shouting) that I searched for it in his A Goddess in the Stones before finding it pasted into my commonplace book for 11 June ’98, apparently from a (?) NYTBR.
(If you are intrigued enough to check out Lewis I suggest you start with this volume, which contains his early Indochina volume mentioned above, his recent Indian “Goddess”, and a book about Burma. They are my favorites, though he wrote MANY others on subjects and locations from Spain to Sicily. Come to think of it, better read the Sicilian ones too, at least…)