Little known to many, my guilty pleasure is reading travelogues and travel books.
I stumbled upon this book and thought it would be a great companion to a trip to the desert.
It is part biography, part historical, part travel, part confession sort of a book. The book is arranged in short chapters and the present and the new are interwoven in the pages, some chapters are the voices of the protagonist of a historical figure, most of them writers.
For centuries, the desert has enticed fascination somewhat of an obsession to white scholars and travellers… An airman repeatedly risks being shot down flew into the unsubjugated desert, emerging to write great adventure novels and The Little Prince. Soon after, a young man disguises himself as an Arab woman to penetrate the forbidden city at the heart of tribal territory, and a French woman leads a short, gloriously free life by becoming a Moslem man. Fantasists and truth telleters – Antoine de Saint-Exupèry, Michel Vieuchange, Eugène Fromentin, Pierre Loti, Isabelle Eberhardt, Andrè Gide – all write a chapter in the great desert romance.
Sven Lindqvist grew up reading their books and now follow their paths into the Sahara. Diving into his own past (which doesn’t make for a comfy read) and dreams as well as the famous figures’, Lindqvist drags to the surface the history of terrible colonial slaughter, the desert divers, the economical and political changes that are taking places in desert. Through this many facets of history and past historical men and women’s experience I have come to experience and understand the accounts and fascination about the desert.
The desert divers are increasingly people of near extinction. Well digging is a dangerous job. Anyone digging a 50- t 60-metre well must first get through the upper, unstable layer of sand. The shaft is lined with palm trunks and the space between the trunks filled with a mixture of clay and palm fibre to keep the loose sand out. Often the well-digger must then get through several layers of polluted water before he reaches the sub-soil water. A watertight passage has to be made straight through the unclean water. Inside this passage, the well-digger works downwards through alternating firm and loose strata until he reaches the hard stone roof of the underground aquifer. If all goes wrong, the loose earth collapses and the well-digger will be buried underground.
Some of my favourite passages:
The human body has 600 muscles. You use most them automatically without experiencing them. The best part of training is finding new muscles which have never been conscious before.
How many muscles has a human life? You’re sure to use most of them automatically , without experiencing them. Particularly in long-term relationship, developing a routine is labour saving, and thus enervating. The best part of suddenly encountering solitude is that it provides training you discover your life when you have to start using its long-since forgotten and atrophied muscles. – page 35
‘One must never look for happiness,’ she writes. ‘ one meets it by the way – always going in the opposite direction.’ – Isabelle Eberhardt page 90
We are not born human. We become that. We become that through solidarity with each other. We become that by taking responsibility. That is the kind of person I wanted to be. I thought I was that kind of person. […] Is it right then, as Eberhardt writes, that departure is the bravest and most beautiful of all actions? It is far from beautiful. But swallow your pride! Admit your defeat! If you have secretly departed, then admit it – the sooner the better! You most immoral actions are carried out in order to maintain the illusion of being moral. – page 109
I’m being punished for my ignorant moralism. I thought those who could no longer love each other were just lazy. But work alone is not enough. Without grace, there is no love. – page 112.
The reality of the colonies functioned like a dream. […] they took it – in the same way as Saint-Ex, Vieuchange, Loti, Eberhardt and fide took the opportunity to step into their far more innocent dreams. For them, the colonies were an arena in which they were able to live out everything not socially accepted in their own countries.
It is doubtful whether the colonies ever produced either the power or the income their supporters hoped for and advocated them in expectation of. But in the spiritual life of Europe, the colonies had an important function – as a safety vent, as an escape, a place to misbehave.
Like the dream, the colonies offered a refuge away from the demands of their own society, an outlet for cruelty and self-importance not tolerated in Europe. Not yet tolerated. – page 124
Each individual moment in the desert is monotonous in the same way. That is a mistake. There are a thousand different ways of being monotonous and the desert knows them all. – page 133
It is a rare book that combines so many different genre on a common subject. It informs of the geological history of the earth and formation of the desert yet at some chapters it is as poetic as passages that reminds one of life’s regrets and voids that thugs on my heartstring. It contains many real portraits and historical pictures. A short 144-page book that captures the spirit of the desert than any thicker novel or non-fiction books could.
I do not want to write more about the book that would introduces spoilers. It is one book that is worth a re-read, on a deserty, sweltering day.
Paperback. Length: 144 pages. Publisher: Granta Books 2000. Source: Reading Central Library. Setting: The Sahara desert. Finished reading at: 7th November 2011. Translated brilliantly from Swedish by Joan Tate.
About the writer:
Sven Lindqvist (born April 28, 1932) is a Swedish author. Born in Stockholm he has travelled extensively through Asia, Africa and Latin America. His highly acclaimed ‘Exterminate All The Brutes’ is available from Granta books.