Annemarie Schwarzenbach: Où est la terre des promesses?

August 18, 2018

51oUriYpn5L._AC_US218_Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach was a friend of the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, about whom |I’ve written a number of times; they travelled together to Afghanistan by car as the Second World War was about to break out. Maillart recounts this journey in The Cruel Way/ La Voie Cruelle and Schwarzenbach’s account is in this book. The accounts are quite different: Schwarzenbach was a drug addict who was attempting numerous cures to rid herself of her dependency, and in some ways this journey, with a companion, and to places she loved, was another attempt to break her habit, through cold turkey. Ultimately, it failed. Schwarzenbach concentrates almost exclusively on her impressions of people and places and most of the time you would not know Maillart was her companion; Maillart on the other hand is conscious of a sense of duty/loyalty/care/protectiveness to her friend and we never lose sight of her in The Cruel Way…

Schwarzenbach’s descriptions of the beauty of the places through which they travel have a lyrical, almost ethereal quality to them, and more than once I did wonder if she had been under the influence when she wrote. There is a genuine sense of thrill, excitement even, at being on the edge of what was regarded as the civilised world, further and further from the cotton-wool safety of the West, even as it moved inexorably towards another war. There is a Westerner’s innocence as she describes the simplicity of people’s lives and their great friendliness and hospitality; nevertheless she is aware of the difficulties they must undergo, particularly during the harshnesses of winter in the Hindu Kush or the foothills of the Himalayas, and of the limitations to women’s lives under the strictest of interpretations of Islam. In fact, these are the most interesting sections of her book: as a woman, accompanied by another woman, they do have access to so much more than a male traveller would ever experience, and Schwarzenbach does her best to ask questions and discover the truth about how women feel and behave. Such a picture from nearly eighty years ago fascinates both by its detail and by our knowledge of how little seems to have changed.

Schwarzenbach’s love for Afghanistan – or is it its remoteness? – comes across powerfully, and she is also aware of a society, in the late 1930s, at the cusp of change as the inevitable influence of Western technology and life possibilities begin to percolate a very isolated society, and destined irrevocably to change their world…

There is an excellent explanatory postface and notes in the French paperback edition, and the map is adequate, too.

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