Amandine Roche – Nomade sur la voie d’Ella Maillart

August 27, 2020

81a+PrLYM5L._AC_UL320_     I’ve remarked before how little the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart is known over here, despite having written most of her books in English. She is much more popular in Europe, and this book is another ‘tribute’ to her: a French traveller attempts to follow in her footsteps seventy years later, in the early years of this century, and it’s quite instructive. I read it in the hope of understanding a little more of Maillart’s philosophy of life, some of which I had gleaned from Olivier Weber’s book.    

The book is very uneven: at times Roche’s travelling and encounters appear very superficial, and some stretches of her journey are sketched at breakneck speed: Maillart she isn’t, and this isn’t her fault. Her comparisons of the places Maillart visited and how they are now are very interesting, especially when we feel she is as engaged with people and surroundings as much as Maillart was. There are major changes: there is Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits it places on the possibilities for travel; there is the disintegration of the USSR, its fragmentation into numerous barely functioning statelets (Maillart travelled through the Soviet Union in its very early days); China is now a communist empire rather than a failed state in the middle of a civil war and experiencing a Japanese invasion; travel is so much more mechanised… and then there are the places which really do seem virtually unchanged since the 1930s, particularly in Tibet and Nepal. In poorer and more remote regions of the former USSR, Roche encounters a good deal of nostalgia for the good old days of communism among ordinary who have not been on the make.

What became clearer to me was what I picture as Ella Maillart’s flight from Europe in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, a continent where civilisation and its values had either vanished or been found severely wanting. It’s almost as if she could see the future unfolding as she gravitated towards India as the Second World War approached, stopped travelling and began an interior journey instead. I feel that one of the values of Roche’s travels and writings is how, via the inevitable comparisons, Maillart’s quest becomes clearer. At times, I also felt Roche had a tendency to romanticise rather. Travel in the 2ist century is certainly very different, and much harder, in many ways.

It’s when she’s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China that Roche feels so much more immersed, more detailed and more observant; her reflections on how thing do or do not change over time show clearly that we are not necessarily progressing as a species. She happened to be in Kabul on 9-11: certainly chaos did seem to follow her about at times!

One thing was really unsatisfactory: clearly five years in India shaped the second half of Maillart’s life, and Roche did not really provide too many clues about those experiences. Nor – and this was a great surprise, especially since she mentions her intention of doing it – does she visit the places in Southern India where Maillart spent those five years of the Second World War.

I’m glad I read this book; I feel a little more informed, and the personal narrative of how things have changed over time is worthwhile. But the maps are poor…

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