Friday, 5 June 2015

The Forty Pillars of Memory by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

When a piece of writing describes a place, a landscape, or city streets, it is of course through their eyes, and accompanied by their own mood, their feelings, perhaps thoughts arising from their surroundings or an association that is brought to mind. It depends on the writer how much subjectivity is consciously brought in and explored.

But even if it is very little, even if it seems to focus entirely on the outer and the objective vision, it is still their eyes through which we are seeing the land or the streets, it is their selection, their highlighting, their pauses, and necessarily, their imagination that is colouring what they see and which to my mind anyway, makes it so fascinating, for we are learning about this person who is writing.

These are the twin attractions after all, what is being described, the voyage or story that is unfolding, and the person who is making this description, the sense you get of the particular consciousness which is shaping the perceptions, how they are handled or unfolded, how they are drawn together, the colour of the ink in which they are dipped.

Der Vierzig Säulen der Verinnerung/The Forty Pillars of Memory

Several articles written during Annemarie Schwarzenbach's journey with Ella Maillart to Afghanistan in 1939 were published in the Swiss newspaper National Zeitung, (and later published in book form with the title Alle Wege sind Offen/All the Roads are Open.) But these highly personal pieces collected in The Forty Pillars of Memory were never published in her lifetime. As she said herself “These latest fruits of my labour...cannot really be described as articles or simple travel accounts. …. but there is no doubt that they are the most important and sincere writings I have produced during this long journey....I wrote what was in my heart.” 


Annemarie on the Caspian Sea, en route to Afghanistan. Photo credit Ella Maillart

I've just finished translating one of these pieces – Die menschliche Landschaft/The Human Landscape, and the excerpts below are from that. It mixes cherished memories of the land, the people and the beauty of the landscape with her present feelings, and there's a sense of desolation that wraps her as she writes, because of the immanent parting.

Now that a decision has been made and already talk has turned to the time of departure – now,  companions, it seems to me that we should let the past be and have a modest celebration, practise forgetting and play innocuous games, on animal skins and gorgeous rugs, on the banks of the Kabul and Logar rivers still clothed in soft sunlight and intoxicating colours.  Do you know this delightful place?
I know it so well! Let me for once speak from the heart (for I love this land, Afghanistan), let me be frank.

As she said herself, this is a different kind of writing from 'simple travel accounts'. These pieces are an outlet of expression for her powerful feelings. There is a sense here of her needing to provide witness and testament to her own feelings; it is also a lyrical and haunting description of a place that she has come to love, and which she is preparing to leave. 

The Hindu Kush! - Do I remember? – I only have to close my eyes, just as in a good dream..... Haibak, the gardens of Shibargan, the groves of nut trees in Ghazni or Istalif, the powerful rushing sounds of the windmills of Shabash, driven by the north wind, snow on the camels’ backs and on the roofs of Hamadan, snow turned red by the desert sand, snowfall at Shibar,  making no sound – but in the end it blocks the road – and the lurking wolves, the tyre that spins, the helpless dread – the end. But I am wide awake, as awake as anyone could be.  I would like to rebel, protest, recant, call it off, allow myself to slip into righteous anger, and there is no righteous anger.  Besides, I am tired.

And then? What will happen then when these days come to an end, tomorrow and the day after? Needing consolation, to believe still in – the possibility of grace? They point the way with their fingers – the summit of the Khyber Pass.

For it is not just a time of farewell to the person who she feels so much for, (Marie Hackin, wife of the archaeologist Joseph Hackin) but also to Afghanistan, a country as she states quite clearly, she loves, and in the way that you come to love a place or person that you have spent time with, shared challenges, painful and joyful experiences with –  a place or person in short, that you have travelled with. 

In describing these essentially interwoven places and feelings, she is documenting a process that is painful and also courageous. She is indeed mapping part of the human landscape, a spiritual path that others can view, recognize and be grateful for. She was also very much part of the historical time, and of the spiritual, emotional and physical struggle of Europe during these years. 

Our afternoon walk, silent companion, led us to the long crest of a mound like a slain dragon turned to stone, the little road disappeared among the ruins of walls and old graves. - To right and left in the low lying areas and the distant valleys swathed in softness, they have diligently hollowed out canals and cultivated the earth, a white turban fluttered in the field, in the winter pasture black oxen browsed, a village nestled among silvery poplars –  the mountain, rising up above the vineyards, crowned with snow, is unforgettable, etched in memory.

Shortly after writing this, Annemarie left Afghanistan at the end of 1939, and after spending some time with Ella Maillart again in India, she returned to Europe, feeling that she could not abandon her country in the war that had just broken out.
A fierce opponent of the rise of Fascism, during the 1930s she had written articles documenting the abuses of power and how they deeply affected people, particularly Jews.

Joseph Hackin was head of the French archaeological team in Afghanistan. He and Marie returned to Europe in 1940 and, based in London, they both became senior figures in the French Resistance. In 1941 Marie and Joseph Hackin were drowned in a boat that was sunk by the Germans off the coast of France.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach with Marie Hackin (on her right) Jacques Meunié and Joseph Hackin of   DAFA, picnic near Kaboul, autumn 1939. Photograph by Ella Maillart.                                              Credit: Fonds Ella Maillart au Musée de l’Elysée de Lausanne



S'il est certain que nous disposons tous des mêmes sens pour percevoir le monde et qu'à travers eux se fera l'alchimie du récit, de l'écriture,le mode de voyage influe aussi sur le résultat. Pas certain que se déplaçant dans une grosse limousine de luxe, le contact avec la population soit le même qu'avec des moyens plus modestes. C'est en voyant le document photo que je me suis fait cette réflexion. Cela n'en lève sans doute rien à la qualité du récit, mais je tenais à l'écrire, malgré tout.
Bien amicalement.


dritanje said...

Oui Roger, c’était une voiture exceptionnelle mais ça n’empêchait pas les gens d'Afghanistan, toujours curieux et acceuillants, de parler avec les voyageuses. Et quand, en 1952, Nicolas Bouvier et Thierry Frenet faisaient le même voyage, ils avaient une toute petite voiture qui était souvent en panne !
Avec les meilleurs vœux,