Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1658 words

More necessary than life

21 October 2013

Richard Johnstone reviews Ella K. Maillart’s account of a remarkable prewar journey across Europe and into Asia


Heroine: Ella K. Maillart (right) with her travelling companion Annemarie Schwarzenbach and their Ford, from the cover of The Cruel Way.

Heroine: Ella K. Maillart (right) with her travelling companion Annemarie Schwarzenbach and their Ford, from the cover of The Cruel Way.

The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939
By Ella K. Maillart | University of Chicago Press | $26.95

TRAVEL books often begin with a moment of stillness and contemplation, a moment that acts as a kind of overture to the journey itself, with all its action and incident and adventure. In his News from Tartary (1937), the journalist and travel writer Peter Fleming pins down that moment exactly – first chapter, second paragraph – to the late afternoon of 16 February 1935. “I was sitting by myself in a dining-car on the Peking–Hankow Railway,” says Fleming with the kind of “as you do” insouciance that he was particularly good at, and it is “in this moment” that contemplation changes into action. “I as it were woke up… The eleventh hour was over. We were off.” Fleming’s was one of many such journeys taken in the years before the Second World War, by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and Robert Byron and by others whose names are now less well-known, away from a Europe that seemed doomed to self-destruction, and towards something that was elusive and difficult to define, other than as adventure and distraction and different ways of looking at the world. For Fleming, who was not a great one for introspection, the objectives were straightforward – to find out more of what was happening in the troubled region of Sianking (or Xinjiang) in northwest China and, in short, to have fun. There was also a sense of urgency that could not be explained entirely by the rapidly changing nature of political events both at home and abroad. It was to do with getting there before the tourists – before what Fleming calls the “happy, goggling ruminant[s]” had found their spoil-sport way to even the remotest corners.

Accompanying Fleming on his journey was the extraordinary Ella “Kini” Maillart, a traveller and a journalist like Fleming, though unlike him a former captain of the Swiss women’s hockey team. Fleming and Maillart were already known to each other, as seems not unusual among the intersecting pathways of adventurous travellers in the 1930s, but it was by chance that they joined forces for their “escapade” in what was then more commonly referred to as Chinese Turkestan. Fleming is full of admiration for Kini, for her “courage, her endurance, her good-humour and her discretion.” A chapter describing Kini as she faces off and eventually triumphs over a group of menacing officials is given the simple title of “Heroine.” Maillart wrote her own account of their shared travels, Forbidden Journey, which appeared at about the same time as News from Tartary; while well enough received, it was rather over-shadowed by the work of her higher-profile travelling companion. Maillart was undaunted, either as traveller or writer. Her best-known book, which has recently been reissued in paperback by the University of Chicago Press, is an account of a remarkable journey she made a few years later, with a very different companion – or two companions, if you count the car they travelled in.

The Cruel Way first appeared in 1947, after Maillart had spent the war years somewhat improbably seeking enlightenment in India, and after her travelling companion had died, in odd circumstances, back home in Switzerland. The knowledge of those intervening events lends the book an added touch of nostalgia, not just for the threatened civilisations and ways of life depicted in the book, but also for the past lives of the travellers themselves. As travelling companions go, Annemarie Schwarzenbach provides something of a contrast – to put it mildly – with Peter Fleming. The daughter of a wealthy, conservative (and by some accounts pro-Nazi) Zurich family, she rebelled at an early age, adopting a bohemian way of life and beginning an association with the children of Thomas Mann that included a lifelong, and unrequited, infatuation with Erika Mann. Schwarzenbach tried her hand at photography and journalism and travel-writing and fiction and, to her eventual cost, at morphine. She provided Maillart with the car (a gift from her father), companionship and, contrary perhaps to the impression given in photographs of her frail, androgynous beauty, with practical skills of considerable value to the expedition. Maillart reveals at one point in The Cruel Way that it is Schwarzenbach (called Christina in the book in deference to the sensibilities of her mother) who knows how to double de-clutch, a skill she herself never quite mastered, despite her friend’s patient instruction. On the other hand, Schwarzenbach also loses the car keys in an incident that almost puts paid to the journey before it has really begun.

The Cruel Way begins with its own still moment, placed with a certain inevitability in the second paragraph of the book’s opening pages. “We were both looking through the small window-panes of [Christina’s] house in the Engadine,” Maillart tells us, when Christina revealed that her father had promised her a Ford. Maillart disrupts the stillness and springs into action. “A Ford!” she cries. “That’s the car to climb the new Hazarejat road in Afghanistan.” And so they do, after a long and eventful journey through central and southern Europe, Turkey and Iran, to arrive eventually in northern Afghanistan. Annemarie’s own version of the journey, consisting of newspaper articles and some rather self-consciously poetical pieces she wrote at the time, was published in book form in Switzerland in 2008, and in a translation by Isabel Fargo Cole entitled All the Roads Are Open: an Afghan Journey 1939–40, in 2011. It is interesting to compare that book with Maillart’s franker and more detailed version of their shared experiences on the road. Schwarzenbach, speaking perhaps from a greater sense of social privilege, or at least of social entitlement, tends to gloss over the difficulties of the journey in favour of a more airy and more worldly tone. She is impatient with those who question the wisdom of two women travelling alone through harsh and dangerous terrain, claiming that they experienced “just one unpleasant incident.”

As Fargo Cole notes, Maillart is significantly more straightforward about unpleasant incidents, which were often caused by the very male escorts who were assigned, by various officials along the way, to protect them. In fact it is Maillart’s straightforwardness – her willingness to question herself and her motives, and to acknowledge her own conflicting views of the scenes she encounters and the people in those scenes – that enlivens the book and keeps us reading on through the occasional chunks of undigested “background” and some clumsily rendered dialogue. Peter Fleming astutely remarks in News from Tartary that his friend Kini was “not a born journalist,” but in place of precision or style we get a clear sense of a remarkable woman trying to come to terms with herself and with the relationship between East and West. She is certainly tough – when she burns her hand in a rather nasty accident with a petrol stove, her response is to sprinkle some powder (“tannic acid every fifteen minutes”) on the wound and press on, holding her hand outside the car all the while “to let the lymph drip on the road.” She devotes herself heroically to her friend, with the objective of rescuing her from her addiction, but when she eventually has to acknowledge that she has failed in that particular quest, true to character she presses on. “I was tired of Christina,” she says towards the end, with bracing honesty.

Underlying every aspect of The Cruel Way is the question of gender, and the complex attitudes of both Schwarzenbach and Maillart to what would have been regarded at the time as their adoption of purely masculine prerogatives, not least among them the prerogative of travelling from Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford. It is not always clear to the people they meet that they are in fact women. Maillart is amused when Christina is mistaken for her chauffeur, and on another occasion for her son. Her own toughness seems to unsettle many of the men she encounters, who expect rather less confidence and self-assertion from a woman. While generally dismissive of officials of all kinds, Maillart is captivated by the Afghan tribesmen (as indeed is Christina), often describing them in language that is overtly sensual. On several occasions she uses the phrase “radiant manhood,” and in one of her more successful set pieces she watches admiringly as a group of tribesmen breaks into a spontaneous and uninhibited dance.

By contrast, the travellers’ rare encounters with other women – or perhaps more accurately the absence of such encounters – are unsettling, both for Maillart and for the reader. Maillart lyrically describes a market-day scene of bustling activity, in which “the white of turbans and the red of kaftans vibrated joyfully as if in a composition by a master-painter,” before adding, whether laconically or critically is difficult to tell, “as usual, not a woman to be seen.” (“We seemed to be in a land without women,” says Schwarzenbach in All the Roads Are Open.) Maillart is fully aware of the irony of the situation. The underlying reality of their journey – of two women travelling “in a land without women” – is one that she returns to repeatedly, from different and sometimes contradictory angles. The way from Switzerland to Afghanistan is cruel not least because it presents Maillart with a problem she cannot solve: how to reconcile her rejection of the suffocating and “suicidal” West (and, by implication, her final parting with the equally “suicidal” Christina), and her gratitude for the freedom the West (and, again by implication, Christina) has given her, a freedom she describes as “more necessary than life.” •

Read next

2936 words

The ethical case for guest workers

A new book argues that it is morally defensible to restrict migrants’ rights in order to give them access to the benefits of increased migration, writes Peter Mares


Martin Ruhs argues that we must work within the constraints of what is, rather than what ought to be. Nathan Rein/Flickr

Martin Ruhs argues that we must work within the constraints of what is, rather than what ought to be. Nathan Rein/Flickr