Winter in Vorderasien is Schwarzenbach's account of her first trip to Turkey, Syria, the Lebanon, and Palestine. She made the trip in 1933 and the impressions she gained would not only serve as inspiration for a collection of short stories (Bei diesem Regen) but would also determine her fate as a travel writer - as she would continue to travel and share her experiences through both her photographic work and her writing.
While this not the best of her work with respect to writing style, the fascinating aspect of this book is that it is a frank account of her impressions. The short stories she would later extract from these initial sketches are much more polished stylistically, but they also loose some of the edge with which Schwarzenbach takes account of the events of her travels at the time - inconveniences, frustrations, and not all but some of the unpleasant experiences are accounted for in Winter in Vorderasien which will not feature in the later revisions. Again, it must be said that the revisions are offered as a work of fiction and must be read as such whereas this book is not and as such portrays much more of the Western European attitudes of travellers in a world which is still governed by colonialists. Although Schwarzenbach does not share all of these attitudes, she is subjected to them as she could not have undertaken the trip without depending on the established ex-pat society she meets on the way, and this does come across in her impressions - even though her own thoughts and attitudes would be developed in more detail in the subsequent short stories.
Not much to say about this other than that this was sooooo boring.
I would have expected more from the memoirs of a former president. There are some allusions to events and characters that would have been interesting to learn more about or read the thoughts of someone who not only witnessed them first-hand but actually had an involvement with them or with the consequences that followed - for example the use of police forces during public demonstrations after the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg.
But no. Not so much.
This is another book by Ella Maillart about her travels to the far flung places of the earth whose names sound like she made them up for a children's bedtime story.
I read Auf Kuehner Reise (tr. "Daring Travels" - it may also have been published as "Ausser Kurs", i.e. "Off Course"), which was originally published in French as Parmi la jeunesse russe (tr. "Amongst Russian Youth"), in the German translation. Unfortunately, this is another book that has never been translated widely (but, IMO, really should have been). There are probably several reasons for the lack of interest:
First off, this book is basically Maillart's first book. She always travelled and was fond of adventure but it was not until her return from Russia in 1930 that she was persuaded to write about her experiences.
Second, the trip and the book were really quite audacious: As a Swiss national, Maillart had difficulties obtaining a visa for the trip. Switzerland had not recognised the Soviet Union politically and relations between western states and the Stalinist country were rather tense.
When she finally does get permission to travel in the SU, she is under no illusion that what ever she writes may endanger her trip and also the people supporting her whilst travelling. There is a scene in the book where she alludes to being followed by a member of state security. She quickly dismisses the scene but I could not help wondering how closely she had been watched or had had similar encounters that have not made it into her book.
She also thinly disguises the identity of the people she meets. For example, Moscow in 1930 was severely lacking accommodation - Maillart could not afford to stay in hotels (and at any rate would have preferred to stay with locals) and finds lodgings with Countess Tolstoy (daughter-in-law of Leo), who is a friend of a friend. She never mentions her outright, tho. And only refers to her as Madam T. or Frau K. (depending on which edition you read). So, she is quite aware from the outset that if she chose to write anything political, it might have consequences for herself and the people around her.
As a result she wrote down her observations with little criticism of what she saw and little judgement. She does compare some of the ways and attitude she observes to her experiences in Germany or Switzerland but, generally leaves out any in depth valuation of which one is better etc.
The non-political tone of the book led to a rejection by western readers when the book was published in 1932. I assume that readers expected to have their the rumors and stories about the grim realities of Stalinist Russia confirmed and were disappointed by a book that spent a lot of time talking about the attitudes of the state towards building a future by providing education and opportunities for its youth. What Maillart also describes - but does not spell out - is how the Stalinist regime colonizes the country and bit by bit eradicates differences between its people and destroys true individuality. Again, she does not analyse this within this book but it is present in her observations. (She is more vocal about it in her later book The Cruel Way.)
What was also fascinating about the way Maillart wrote this book was the way she used her observations to tell about the ideas she favoured, like the emergence of women into the work place and by extension a more equal society or the promotion of education for people of all walks of life.
Maillart was not naive enough to believe or promote the communist idea in her book. Far from it. Communists do not get many favourable mentions in the book at all. She mostly focuses on the discussions she has with the young people that she travels with and the people she meets on the road. However, this being her first book, I guess people would not have grasped that Maillart herself was the most staunch supporters of freedom and individuality.
As for the trip itself, the book is divided in to two parts: Maillart starts off with a short stay in Moscow - which made for fascinating reading because there are so few first-hand accounts that I have read of westerners travelling there during Stalin's reign.
The second part of the book, describes her trip from Moscow to the Caucasus - more specifically Svanetia, which I had not heard of and which really does sound like a fairy tale place.
Svanetia, in northern Georgia, at the time of her trip (1930) was a very remote place. Not only is it surrounded by the highest mountains in Europe, but at the time, there were hardly any transportation links or any means of communication, or facilities which would have been commonplace in other parts of eastern Europe - such as plumbing, reliable water supply, not to mention electricity or heating systems - apparently some houses were still constructed without chimneys providing no ventilation for fires inside the house (and making heating them difficult).
It really must have been a fascinating experience.
By comparison, only 9 years later, Maillart would describe a trip across Persia and Afghanistan, which was made possible by the relative ease with which she and her companion were able to find food and lodgings and source parts and petrol for their car.
The trip in what is now Georgia was much less sophisticated.
She describes how people would watch a film at an improvised cinema, and believing it to be real, would check behind the screen to find the actors; how the radio was such a novelty still that people could not believe it was possible for it to transmit in real time; how people were only slowly adjusting to the change in times and customs.
For me the second part of the book was even more enjoyable than the first. For one it showed a part of the world at a time when no one else wrote about, at a time that must have been both wondrous and frightening at the same time.
At the same time, the book shows Maillart at a point, a seminal point, in her life where she makes a choice to abandon Europe to become a traveller. She shares some of her motivations in the book and we also get to see some of the guts it would take for her to make the decision as it is quite clear that she'd not choose (or have the means to choose) travelling in comfort.
But then, if she could hike across the Causcasus with a severe leg injury (a dog bit a chunk out of her) and no medical help, what else was there to stop her?
So, this was only the first of her many extraordinary adventures.
"There is something strangely determinate and fatal about a single shot in the night. It is as if someone had cried a message to you in one word, and would not repeat it. I stood for some time wondering what it had meant. Nobody could aim at anything at this hour, and, to scare away something, a person would fire two shots or more."
There is some truly beautiful writing in this book.
When describing the land and the wildlife of Africa, Dinesen (i.e. Karen Blixen) truly shines as a writer and I can only believe that it is this aspect of her book that resonates with so many who rate this book, Out of Africa, highly. I mean, the film of the same title is not really based on and has little to do with this book, so clearly readers must see something else in the book that appeals to them - and I'm guessing it is the lyrical description of the African landscape. If the book contained itself to her impressions of the land, I would have loved this book, too.
Unfortunately, no amount of lyrical prose was able to outweigh the aspects of the book that really drove me nuts, none more so than the way author writes about the people of Kenya and, by doing so, what we learn about the author herself.
After reading only a couple of chapter I was utterly conflicted whether the author's constant racism was a result of her genuine believe that white Europeans were supreme to the primitive natives or whether her offensive descriptions of "the Natives" was a result of some sort of mistake in articulating what she really meant.
Seeing the she continued to generalise about African people and compare them to animals throughout the book, it leaves little argument against the assumption that Dinesen really believed in the superiority of the white "Immigrants".
So the next question that occurred (and as one fellow reader pointed out also) is, how much of the casual racism was a result of the time that Dinesen lived in?
Well, seeing that she lived in Africa between 1915 and 1931 (Out of Africa was published in 1937), it is of course to be expected that her views are reflecting the mores of a less enlightened time, which is somewhat ironic as she fills the book with literary and philosophical references in an attempt to show off her worldliness and pretends to present herself as an enlightened, witty and intellectual woman. This in particular made me want to smack her with a copy Markham's West with the Night. Markham may have had her shortcomings but she did not need to fuel her self-confidence by patronising anyone, least her African neighbours.
As much as Dinesen's racism may have been a reflection of her time, it became clear when reading the first story in Shadows on the Grass, that Dinesen's believe of superiority must have been ingrained in her more deeply than just as an expression of a sentiment that was popular within her social circles.
Shadows on the Grass was published in 1960. So, at that time Dinesen had not only returned to Europe, but had also widely travelled, was at home in the artistic and literary circles of Europe and the US, and as any enlightened intellectual of the time would have been exposed to current affairs of the world such as the beginning of the civil rights movement in the US, the demise of the colonial systems as a result of the moral issues raised with supremacist theories after WWII, etc. Yet, the first story in Shadows on the Grass contains the same racist bullshit as Out of Africa including the following:
"The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages. The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me at the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but they stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine."
She even goes on to say that she found some pseudo-scientific theory to support her musings on the qualities of different races. Of course, this only takes up one paragraph in the book and she does not present any arguments that may contradict her opinions.
How is this supportable by the justification that she was a writer of her time? Had she been "of her time" I would have expected her to move on, but no.
What the book also told me about Dinesen is that she had more appreciation and compassion for animals than for human beings. She was against killing animals for sport - except lions (lions were fair game, apparently), which was quite unusual for a member of the society she lived in, and also considering that the love of her life, Denys Finch-Hatton, organised safaris for wealthy big game hunters. And yet, when confronted with the victim of a shooting accident, a child who had been shot accidentally, all she can say is the following:
"When you are brought suddenly within the presence of such disaster, there seems to be but one advice, it is the remedy of the shooting-field and the farmyard: that you should kill quickly and at any cost. And yet you know that you cannot kill, and your brain turns with fear. I put my hands to the child's head and pressed it in my despair, and, as if I had really killed him, he at the same moment stopped screaming, and sat erect with his arms hanging down, as if he was made of wood. So now I know what it feels like to heal by imposition."
So, her first instinct is to shoot the child? The second insight she gains is that she deludes herself into thinking she could heal by laying on hands?
Actually, there is more about her delusional exploits as a medic when deciding to become the primary medical care giver to the Natives on her farm. Granted, any first aid may have been better than none, but at no time does she pretend to want to find out if what she's doing is of any medical help, and it looks like failures didn't make her stop to think, either:
"I knew very little of doctoring, just what you learn at a first aid course. But my renown as a doctor had been spread by a few chance lucky cures, and had not been decreased the catastrophic mistakes that I had made."
So, again while some of the writing is great, I just cannot muster any sympathy or liking for the author, who, to me, came across as an ignorant, utterly delusional, racist, ever pretending to be something she was not.