Reading: Ella Maillart — The Cruel Way

The first of my new pile of books, though i haven’t finished the last lot yet (some shall dwell in my reading stump for quite some time, I suspect, and one likely shall be read in the furthest-from orthodox manner possible; no starting at the start and finishing at the over end.

This one, Ella K. Maillart’s The Cruel Way, came to me from a conversation with Lucy who has been translating some of Annamarie Schwarzenbach, whom I met on the Pförtner bus with Isabel, translator of All the Roads are Open, currently near the top of my list for best non-fiction of the year. They both fielded me that afternoon with the names of several authors who reside at the intersection of a number of sets I have been distracted by for some time: women authors, writing on Afghanistan and Central Asia, in the (broad) subjects of anthropology and history.

I promptly forgot the names, though knew I’d get around to remembering soon enough, and thankfully Lucy scribbled them down for me. To Saint George’s!

When Annamarie travelled to Afghanistan overland by car in the second half of 1939, she did so with the companionship of another writer, Ella Maillart. For both of them, the journey resulted in a book, though until this year, Annamarie hadn’t been translated to english. Ella, on the other hand, was in english since 1947, with one peculiarity: there is no mention of Annamarie Schwarzenbach.

Ella travels with Christina. The one photo of her is from a distance, head down over the campsite, so as to be unrecognizable. Despite this (at the insistence of Annamarie’s mother), there is little or no disguising of whom she travelled with, though this does make for a somewhat sombre reading, knowing full well who Christina is, and that her identity is erased by her own mother in a perverse desire for familial respectability.

It is a rare pleasure to read two highly accomplished writers documenting the same journey; to see the same experiences through the eyes of each. Annamarie writes with such a sparse, poetic, lyrical style as to be a novelist, and very few fiction authors I have read can seduce in telling a story more than she. Ella is somewhat the opposite; a travel writer who is romantic almost becoming saccharine. Nonetheless not to say she is a poor writer, and being a couple of chapters in (arriving at Sophia), she recalls for me the best of the writers of who ventured into Central Asia in a manner unimaginable now.