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It’s not an insult to the work of Annemarie Schwarzenbach that many readers, in the decades since her death in 1942, have found her writing not quite as interesting as her life. Whose work, really, could compete?
After growing up in Zurich dominated by one of history’s most scarifying mothers—one who’d go on to destroy many of her daughter’s manuscripts—Schwarzenbach set out for the Berlin of the decaying Weimar Republic, the cabaret world of Isherwood and Dietrich, one of the few places in the 1930s where a woman interested in women might fall profitably in love. There she relished the nightlife, larked about with the progeny of Thomas Mann, avoided mom, and wrote in a terse, bare, confessional style, trying to wring the most overbearing of feelings from the simplest words.
And she suffered. Sadly, love never really worked out for her, and the politics of Germany were such that a noisy anti-fascist like her really shouldn’t have been hanging around. So Schwarzenbach—androgynous, suicidal, opium-addicted—embarked on journeys that still seem impossible today. With her friend Ella K. Maillart, she roadtripped Aftghanistan—two women in an untrustworthy car. All the Roads Are Open (142 pp., $15), from Seagull Press, collects the wonderful newspaper articles Schwarzenbach wrote during the journey. “With our Afghan friends we felt as safe as in Abraham’s bosom,” she declares, although the cover photo of her—trousered, lanky, David Bowie with an Elroy Jetson haircut—will inspire readers today to wonder what all she might have left out. (Maillairt’s The Cruel Way, currently out of print, shapes the adventure into a more traditional narrative than Schwarzenbach’s newspaper accounts.) Schwarzenbach later settled for two spells in Persia, working archaeological digs, marrying a French diplomat but falling in hopeless love with an ambassador’s daughter—and later spurning the love offered by her dear American friend Carson McCullers.
So, yes, that’s a lot for the work to live up to. And if you approach her art with no knowledge of her life, the art indeed suffers. Propriety at the time dictated that the narrator of her Lyric Novella (Seagull, $15, 140 pp.), a Romantic type in full swoon over a Berlin cabaret singer, be identified as male when it’s obvious today that she isn’t. Later, in the newly translated Death in Persia (Seagull, $15, 156 pp.), her most gorgeous and mysterious work yet available in English, Schwarzenbach recounts a loneliness that shoves everything else out of her: the loneliness of the deserts in what is now Iran, where she lived and observed a life just barely fastened to the harsh, near-lunar landscape.
Schwarzenbach is marvelous on the subjects of mountains, valleys, and unforgiving nature, though less certain charting interiors. But that’s where she’s most fascinating. “This book will bring little joy to the reader,” she promises in Death in Persia‘s first line, but what exactly that narrator is so miserable about goes unstated for most of the book. After much first-rate description of desert life, a feverish conversation with an angel who saves her from suicide, and some glittering mopery, our narrator lays herself bare in a mad gush, and we see why this novel—or memoir, perhaps, as the form is never clear—wasn’t published in Schwarzenbach’s lifetime. Our narrator, a woman, has fallen in love with the Turkish ambassador’s diseased daughter.
In both Death in Persia and Lyric Novella, the drama is four-fold: Will our narrator survive this emotional upheaval? Will Schwarzenbach survive it herself? How close can Schwarzenbach come to revealing the truth of her life? (Even Death in Persia omits the husband and mother who weighed on her.) And finally, fascinatingly, will the narrator actually get it together long enough to finish the book?
Both slim volumes feel as if they could end at any time, as if the author might collapse before we’ve run out of pages. Both also feature stinging scenes that should be familiar to any writer: the author herself (or himself, kind of, in Lyric Novella), sitting in a cafe or bedroom, trying to get it all down, to transform life into art, to find an artful shape for the vast and confounding things that she feels.
Compared to Death in Persia‘s promise that its readers will find no joy, the opening of Noo Saro-Wiwa’s engaging, amusing, and alarming Nigerian travelogue Looking for Transwonderland (Soft Skull Press; $15.95; 272 pages) is drearily conventional, the kind of first line that might kick off a supermarket thriller: “The deep voices boomed loudly enough to jolt me from my mid-morning snooze.”
It’s not true that every book that begins with a character waking up must be bad, but there’s no denying that, just like in life, opening with that jolt or a start is rarely the dawn of anything good. Fortunately, Transwonderland quickly gets better. Though raised in England, and accustomed to First World wi-fi, Saro-Wiwa was born in Nigeria, a country that the young author had come to detest even before her activist father was executed there in 1995. Now past 30, Saro-Wiwa returned to the Nigeria she knew only from family vacations, a place that, to her suburban sensibilities, she disdained as buggy and backwards.
What she finds makes compelling reading. She evokes Lagos in its full crazy boil: terrifying rides on tiny motorbikes; a population desperate to get indoors before dark, when the thieves take over; the hollering of evangelical street preachers; low-level politicians who insist on being called “your excellency”; street kids who are born and die without ever leaving an imprint on any official record. The Transwonderland of the title is a Nigerian amusement park now gone to pot. More interesting than such large-scale, West-inspired failures are the homegrown innovations, like the made-on-the-cheap Nollywood movies she catches. These tend to be dramatic tales of sin and redemption steeped in southern Nigeria’s mash-up religiosity: African animism and fear of witchcraft meets the Western-style evangelicalism of the prosperity gospel.
Saro-Wiwa can be prickly, in an amusing way, and she’s always honest about her difficulties adapting to life far from the comforts of London. (A university library, she sadly notes, has fewer books than she will own in her lifetime.) She’s happy to theorize about why democratic government has been so long in coming to Nigeria—and is still so terribly corrupt. The African way, she argues, has been to look out for your family first, not your entire community, and certainly not something as abstract as a whole country, so it makes perfect sense for a politician to staff government jobs with unqualified cousins. Perhaps that’s true, but Saro-Wiwa is at her best when she’s at her most amused: dancing at a wedding, gabbing with strangers, telephoning the young men who have placed hilariously frank newspaper ads seeking “sugar mummies.” (“Victor from Port Harcourt needs a fat sugar mummy with big boobs. He promises to satisfy her needs.”)
By the end, after she’s donned a djellaba and surveyed Nigeria’s northern, Muslim cities, Saro-Wiwa has made her peace with her homeland. That’s no surprise. Unlike Schwarzenbach, who felt so stranded abroad, Saro-Wiwa has the benefit of our new cultural understanding of physical journeys as narratives not just of travel but of the discovery of self. Trained to “process” all we experience, our adventures abroad are about finding rather than losing ourselves, and there’s no longer much need to hide what we may arrive at being.
That makes for better lives but less exciting books. Here there’s never any doubt about whether the writer will get through it or will be better off for having journeyed. The one thing Looking for Transwonderland is missing, other than a strong opening line, is a fuller evocation of that feeling Saro-Wiwa suffered briefly on a Nigerian rollercoaster: a sense that the narrative—or her conclusions—might spin fully out of control.