Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad is made up of short reminiscences on travel by the book’s narrator, a Belgian writer like himself. Its emotional and comic precision makes for one of his more accessible books, deriving power from its elegant slightness.
The narrator is most often traveling for literary business – a writer’s conference in Vietnam, a speech at the French Institute in Tunisia – and Toussaint uses these trips to explore the disorientations of modern globe trotting. He delights in the absurdities that result in complicated layers of nationalities and languages. At a boules contest in Corsica, the narrator’s friend Christian and his Japanese girlfriend Noriko speak to each other in Spanish since it’s “the only language they both understood” and the comic momentum of the story is punctuated by her cries of ¡santo cielo!.