the cruelest way
Bearings, landmarks, disappeared, as they would from a skiff in mid-Atlantic.
—Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana, p. 199)
Slowly I began to understand. This was the beginning of the fear. And I can never get over it, never forget it.
—Annmarie Schwarzenbach (All the Roads Are Open, p. 60)
Every detail had the sharpness not only of something one sees for the first time but of a beauty that can be compared with nothing else.
—Ella Maillert (The Cruel Way, p. 184)
Since reading Herodotus, I have had a lingering fondness for any travel writing that turns its attention towards and past Asia Minor.1 It is not surprising that Maillart’s The Cruel Way and Schwarzenbach’s All the Roads Are Open drew my interest. The premise was promising – two women, starting in Yugoslavia and travelling over land and over sea to Afghanistan in a new Ford purchased just for the trip – but it was impossible to approach the journey directly. Every point of access was barred by circumlocutions or the dubious charms of undergraduate marginalia in out-of-print books.2 As much as they were rushing towards experience, there was much that they were trying to escape, particularly about themselves.
Isn’t it wrong to escape, make a detour and be lost, all of which have led me here to the farthest-flung edge of the world? Wouldn’t I have had a good, courageous life if only I had been able to resist sickness and fear? Will I be made to face the consequences just because I had nothing to counter a nameless and agonizing desperation?
—All the Roads Are Open (p. 115)
All the Roads Are Open is a broken book, clearly begun with a plan in mind that partway through has to be abandoned, despite the best of intentions. It begins with an assured tone and the first person plural, but within its short span of pages it finds more questions than it answers, all personal, all individual, and comes increasingly to rely on the singular, on visions from angels. There is a temptation, when reading, to engage in cheap psychologizing, to hint that addiction, sexuality, depression, or an unhappy childhood are the source of authorial discontent. This temptation may have been present when writing, too, but this is das Ungedachte. The moments of beauty in the book fall between these two excesses, in moments of seeming frankness, a setting aside of personæ (journalist, melancholic) that appears more often in one of Schwarzenbach’s other books, Death in Persia. For the remainder of the book she seems to be trying to explain, as she tried to explain to the British customs officials in the Khyber Pass, where she has come from, where she is going, and why she has not been in any of the expected places.
But I felt an atmosphere of danger: we were in a big town which might offer dangerous temptations. […] I was so absorbed in my thoughts that I never knew what people had been telling me. I carefully avoided speaking about the past.
—The Cruel Way (p. 85)
The Cruel Way, too, promises to be one book in its early pages – travel memoir as anatomy of friendship – but then settles into the cataloguing tradition (so many tiles in so many shades of blue on so many distant buildings, so many worried, sidelong, silent glances) for reasons that the author does not fully explore – or that I, a year after reading it, cannot remember. This is the difficulty of playing the therapist in the physical journey as metaphorical path to wellness: if one is not suited to the role, the companion, the patient (all patience) is left behind. Maillart recognizes this, to a certain extent, and feels guilty, as perhaps she should.
Yes, this book is about errant ways and its subject is despair. But if the author’s sole aim is to rouse the sympathy of her readers, she is bound to fail in this case—for we can only hope for sympathy and understanding if our failures can be explained, our defeats are valiantly fought and our suffering is the inevitable consequence of rational events. Although we may be occasionally happy for no reason, it is unacceptable to be unhappy for no reason. And in difficult times like these, one is supposed to be effortlessly capable of selecting the enemy and the destiny that suits our strengths.
—Annmarie Schwarzenbach (Death in Persia, p. 3f.)
I will admit, after the fact, that I was looking to experience anew The Road to Oxiana, but preferably as written by a woman. Equally charming whether travelling en prince or roughing it, Byron turns a wry eye both to those he encounters and to his own pretensions. He is frank about many of the ways in which he benefits from colonialism and equally frank about some of the miseries it engenders. For Byron, the unconscious, the unthought sleeps easily – or at least is not a principal character in his travels, only appearing as a foible or object of mirth: the book is disarming, leavened with humor – an amusing, effective mask.
Strolling up the road towards the minarets, I feel as one might feel who has lighted on the lost books of Livy o an unknown Botticelli. Timurids are too remote for most people to romance over them. But such is the reward of my journey to me.
—The Road to Oxiana (p. 88)
It is difficult to write a conclusion, because I am not sure I have any to give. The books by Maillert and Schwarzenbach, though ostensibly within the same genre as Byron’s, are something else entirely; if they capture the ennui of travel in the age of late colonialism, that is by the way, but it is an essential element of Byron’s book.3 While their writing had commercial intent (they pre-placed articles to fund the journey), the trip itself was not wholly a success – and indeed, failed in a way that neither humor nor confession could veil.4 They are tender books, and I feel tenderly towards them and think of them with an ache – perhaps because there are other roads I am thinking of.
- This sentiment does not bear close scrutiny. [↩]
- It took ages to find a copy of All the Roads Are Open without extensive double underlining, by-gosh-isms, and scattershot marks of interrogation and exclamation. I speak as though I made an exhaustive effort. I did not. [↩]
- And, indeed, in the other books considered in Paul Fussell’s Abroad, which I believe I made notes on earlier. [↩]
- Certainly the trip seemed less successful than Maillert’s 1935 excursion with Peter Fleming, immortalized in Forbidden Journey and News from Tartary. [↩]