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All the Roads are Open

All the roads are open

Seagull Books

Pages: 140 Rs. 395

An eloquent reflection on the essence & lure of travel

Though intimately documented and deeply contemplative, Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s essays are guilty of Orientalist stereotypes, writes Sharanya.

SHARANYA  6th May 2012

Schwarzenbach’s description of Afghan women is indicative of the ‘dismayed westerner’ in her

n arriving at Therapia in 1939, Annemarie Schwarzenbach wrote: "Everything had been once before! Everything was mirrored as in a glittering scabbard, the white bridges milling with people, the gently rocking steamships, the gulls, and at last the city wall, lonely in the golden twilight, olives and olive groves at its feet. I felt I must not lose myself in these sights, it was too familiar – "

In January 2012, I open my Times atlas, and look for Therapia, but in vain. The internet tells me that the Greek word "Therapia" means "healing", and is the former Greek name of what is today the city of Tarabya, in Turkey. I know neither Tarabya nor Therapia, but such dichotomies do not matter to Schwarzenbach, who revels in poetic contradictions. "In my dreams I would have seen the domes of other cities, and when I awoke I would have sought their sonorous names on signposts and maps", she confesses, while adding later: "I stubbornly refused to believe that the names I learnt and read on the map could take form before I'd seen them with my eyes, touched them with my breath, held them as if it were in my hands."

In June 1939, two women set off for Afghanistan in an 18 hp Ford DeLuxe from Geneva. They drove through the Balkans, Turkey and Iran, finally reaching Kabul in August. In 2012, Both Schwarzenbach and I are time-travelling across All the Roads are Open: the memoirs of an Afghan journey undertaken with writer Ella Maillart. Annemarie Schwarzenbach is described in the introduction of the memoir as a "European cult figure: journalist, novelist, antifascist, archeologist, morphine addict and world traveler". The memoirs document the journey of the two women up to Kabul — where they went their separate ways — and goes on to include details of Schwarzenbach's return to Turkistan, and her subsequent trip to Bombay in 1940 before she headed back to Europe.

In All the Roads are Open, Schwarzenbach darts about recklessly between "Stamboul" and "Istanbul", and "Trapezunt" and "Trabzon", and readers are forced to morph into cartographers, tracing an invisible map of the names she is constantly super-imposing on her memories. I am beginning to mistrust — and consequently, enjoy — Annemarie Schwarzenbach's accounts, and her inability to separate fact from fiction. Indeed, she wonders: "Perhaps my sense of reality is not very highly developed...I can't always tell memories from dreams, and often I mistake dreams, coming to life again in colours, smells, sudden associations, with the eerie secret certainty of a past life..."

It is a curious variety of travel writing, one whose writer assumes her role as the representative of empirical truth with great unease. She prefers to rely on her imagination and, more prominently, long for memories. "In the grand and changeful panorama of the Hindu Kush I miss the young green, the gentle wind, the stirring song of spring", she writes about her return to Turkistan. "But we do not dictate our dreams, and I didn't dare look back at the receding snowy peaks as I turned onto the plain. It is not for me to dictate greeting and parting and draw the boundary between reality and vision".

Schwarzenbach's writing reveals a thirst for relentless travel; a thirst that mirrors the morphine addiction she battled before she undertook this journey with Maillart. She views travelling as "merciless" in reality, as an endeavour that transcends the frivolous pleasures of escapism and habit. One glimpses a tiredness in her words when she attempts to swallow, with great concentration, her surroundings: she weaves each moment into a vivid, eloquent tapestry that accumulates the individual flavor of the place alongside her philosophic observations and questions about travel. "What am I writing of, so eager and assiduous?" she frets. "Of the cities and towns of Afghanistan, its good and evil spirits? Of Heart the Splendid and its towering minarets, of Balkh, for its historic name, of Mazar-i-Sharif's white flock of doves?"

Schwarzenbach continuously bemoans the fact that technological progress would destroy Afghanistan’s “old virtues”, and her understanding of Afghan women and their customs is especially disquieting; she is convinced that women in the East need to be saved or protected from their own customs.

vocative as Annemarie Schwarzenbach's writing is, there are aspects to it that are deeply troubling, that cannot perhaps be divorced from her disarming style of writing: she readily adopts the role of the dismayed Westerner who indulges ecstatically in Orientalism in the name of cultural-exchange. Schwarzenbach continuously bemoans the fact that technological progress would destroy Afghanistan's "old virtues", and her understanding of Afghan women and their customs is especially disquieting; she is convinced that women in the East "live in constant fear" and need to be saved or protected from their own customs. She reiterates that "of course all Afghan women look the same" because they wear the chador, calling them "muffled, formless figures", and refers to Mohamemedan women in Sofia as "shy and clearly downtrodden creatures". She wonders how one can be fond of dark-skinned children, and is visibly cheered at the sight of unveiled women.

This Orientalism sadly features as a deliberate tool that is essential towards highlighting the aforementioned themes of displacement, memory and fiction: the decision not to standardize place names was that of Isabel Fargo Cole, the translator, but it was intended to be viewed as "a phenomenon characteristic of the author's writing process: seduction by exotic, magical-sounding names." Schwarzenbach glosses over details of travel privileges; she is puzzled when English custom officers at Khyber Pass ask her when she last crossed the border, because she believes "all the roads are open, and lead nowhere, nowhere."

Any claim that insists on labeling literature — any literature — as "universal" is a dubious one, for elements that resonate across translations of contexts may exist, perhaps, between 1939 and 2012, but they are hardly universal in their natural forms. Cole writes that Schwarzenbach's isolation in All the Roads are Open lends the journey "a universality and dream-like immediacy." The latter certainly is a feature of Schwarzenbach's haunting and melodious prose, but the former is a myth — and unfor tunately for Schwarzenbach, not one that can be enjoyed by all her readers.

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