“Stories of the Sahara” by Sanmao

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At first hearing, Stories of the Sahara sounds improbable: about a half-century ago, a young Chinese woman from Taiwan decamps to El Aaiún in the then Spanish Sahara. She marries her Spanish fiancé, José María Quero, who got himself transferred there because of her infatuation with the desert (caught from an article in the National Geographic). A romantic by nature and a hippie in outlook and dress, if not perhaps lifestyle, she throws herself into life and the local community, gets caught up in the fight for Sahrawi independence and the Moroccan invasion. She writes columns for a Taiwanese newspaper which form the basis for a best-selling book. And the English-speaking world knew next to nothing about her.

But it’s really not so improbable at all. Women have made excellent travel-writers since at least Ida Pfeiffer in the 19th century. East Asians have been travelling—and producing “travel-writing” in the modern sense—for about as long. So the publication of an English translation of Sanmao’s iconic Stories of the Sahara should not seem revelatory, but it nevertheless does.

If any work could be described as having been lovingly translated, it is this one.

Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao , Mike Fu (tr) (Bloomsbury, January 2020)
Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao, Mike Fu (tr) (Bloomsbury, November 2019)

There are some books that one feels one should read, and it is easy to convince oneself that this is one of them.

But there is no need for that: Stories of the Sahara is marvelous. The best travel-writing is sometimes—perhaps always—as much about the traveler as the places visited. Sanmao wears her heart on her sleeve; her enthusiasm for life is infectious; her youthful energy exciting and exhausting; her empathy for others, endearing; her righteous indignation at injustice, uplifting. The result is fresh and vibrant; Sanmao is a meticulous observer and affecting raconteur. Her voice speaks from the page, as if written yesterday rather than almost 50 years ago—an effect, it must be admitted, which might in part be an artifact of the earnest translation by Mike Fu.

The book is structured as a series of essays, most of which are constructed as stories. Sanmao’s literary skills are much in evidence; she has excellent pacing, narratives and characters slowly unveil themselves. Some of the pieces would hold their own as short stories, if they were not true. The best of these is “Sergeant Salva” about a Spanish soldier suffering from what would now be diagnosed as PTSD. Another, “Crying Camels”, intertwines a love story with the guerilla-led revolution.

These are stories which still play out in newspaper headlines and television documentaries, but Sanmao is no journalist: she is always as much participant as observer. Without an iota of medical training, Sanmao starts treating the local Sahrawis for various ailments, becomes an agony aunt to a local grocer who has been ensnared in Algeria by a woman of evidently ill-repute who scarpered to Monte Carlo and extracts money from him, befriends a mute slave (and berates both the owner and local administration for the situation) and walks alone at night through cemeteries.

Unlike much other travel-writing, Sanmao is rarely ever alone. Her husband José is ubiquitous; one doesn’t know whether to envy or pity him in having Sanmao as a life partner. She was a handful and admits that she “had never been passionately in love with him,” but rather “felt incredible lucky and at ease” (except as regards her mother-in-law, a visit to whom is the subject of one angst-ridden and rather funny essay). One guesses that José never really had a chance.

For such an extraordinary situation, plunked down as they were in the middle of Spanish Sahara, they have what amounts to a more or less quotidien existence:  “Married life,” she writes, “is all about eating. The rest of the time is spent making money in order to eat.” They need to economize, buy milk, get married, take driving exams, fend off the neighbor’s goats, earn such extra money when they could (they entered the fresh fish business for about 12 hours, and ended up spending their earnings on eating their own fish served up at the Hotel Nacional).

José was just as subject to whims as she was, with his, on the whole, more dangerous: after speeding off into the desert to look for fossils, he falls into quicksand. Sanmao rescues him by removing their car’s back seat. But he seems to know his wife better than anyone else could. One day he brings her a present:

 

I tore feverishly at the wrapping paper and opened the box. Wow! Two eye sockets of a skull stared up at me… It was a camel skull, white bones neatly assembled, with a huge row of menacing teeth and two big black holes for eyes. I was overjoyed. This was just the thing to capture my heart. I set it on the bookshelf, clucking and sighing in admiration.

 

We know, but Sanmao does not, that José tragically dies in a diving accident in 1979, a few years after this book was put to bed.

Sanmao gives an important eye-witness account of a part of the world that is rarely written about.

Literary merit aside, however, the book might be a mere curiosity, as if the Chinese had suddenly discovered Jack Kerouac. However, Sanmao also gives a fascinating and quite possibly important eye-witness account of a part of the world that is rarely written about, at a time just before a major political transformation: the withdrawal—evacuation might be more accurate—of the Spanish colonial administration and the occupation by Morocco, a situation that remains unresolved to this day. Sanmao—somewhat curiously—seems to have little interest in politics: whether colonialism or the struggle against it. What she wants is to be able to stay:

 

There is no other place in the world like the Sahara. This land demonstrates its majesty and tenderness only to those who love it. And that love is quietly reciprocated in the eternity of its land and sky, a serene promise and assurance, a wish for your future generations to be born in its embrace.

 

The politics, which other writers might have set as a theme, is for her mere background, explosions in the street an impediment to her explorations.

Sanmao, while open-minded, cultivating relationships with both Spaniards and in particular local Sahrawi, is opinionated, sometimes to a fault. Although she loves local culture, she complains in blunt (and politically incorrect) terms about aspects of local hygiene and mores and decries what she sees as ignorance and oppression in Sahrawi society. And she sticks her nose in just about everything. She might have made a good social activist but a terrible anthropologist. But the picture she paints of a traditional society on the verge of transition is both deep and vibrant, a picture which, one suspects, retains some validity in various parts of the developing world.

 

If any work could be described as having been lovingly translated, it is this one. Mike Fu writes in this translator’s note that he felt “intense emotional resonance with the writer’s sensitivities and observations, her humour and heartache.”

If the book has a drawback it is that its structure as a collection of independent stories means that there is some duplication of material as well as timelines. The chapters overlap, and the chronology, indeed, can at times be hard to work out. But that’s a small price to pay for the intimacy this work, and its translation, affords.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.