It's not an insult to the work of Swiss novelist/memoirist/archaeologist Annemarie Schwarzenbach that readers, in the decades since her death in 1942, have found her writing not quite as interesting as her life. After growing up in Zurich dominated by one of history's most scarifying mothers — one who destroyed many of her daughter's manuscripts — Schwarzenbach set out for the Berlin of the decaying Weimar Republic: the cabaret world of Isherwood and Dietrich, one of the few places on earth in the 1930s where a woman interested in women might fall profitably in love. There she relished the nightlife, avoided her mother, and wrote in a bare, confessional style, trying to wring the most overbearing of feelings from the simplest words.
Sadly, love never really worked out for her, and the politics of Germany were such that Schwarzenbach — androgynous, suicidal, opium-addicted — embarked on journeys that still seem impossible today.
All Roads Are Open ($15, 142 pages) from Seagull Press collects the wonderful articles Schwarzenbach wrote during an Afghanistan road trip with friend Ella K. Maillart. (Maillairt's The Cruel Way, currently out of print, shapes the adventure into a more traditional narrative.)
Schwarzenbach later settled for two spells in Persia, working archaeological digs, marrying a French diplomat for some reason, falling in hopeless love with an ambassador's daughter — and later spurning the love offered by her dear American friend Carson McCullers.
That's a lot for the work to live up to. If you approach her art with no knowledge of her life, the art indeed suffers. Propriety dictated that the narrator of her Lyric Novella (Seagull;$15; 140 pages), a Romantic type in full swoon over a Berlin cabaret singer, be identified as male when it's obviously not. The newly translated Death in Persia (Seagull, $15, 156 pages), her most gorgeous and mysterious work available in English, recounts the loneliness of the deserts of what is now Iran, where she lived and observed life just barely fastened to the near-lunar landscape.
Schwarzenbach is marvelous on the subjects of mountains, valleys, and unforgiving nature, but less certain charting interiors. But that's where she's most fascinating. After some first-rate description of desert life, a feverish conversation with an angel who saves her from suicide, and much glittering mopery, our narrator lays herself bare in a mad gush, and we see why this novel — or memoir, perhaps, as the form is never clear — was never published in Schwarzenbach's lifetime: Our narrator, a woman, has fallen in love with the Turkish ambassador's diseased daughter.
Both slim volumes feel as if they could end at any time, as if the writer might collapse before we've run out of pages. Both also offer scenes that should be familiar to any writer: sitting in a cafe or bedroom, trying to get it all down, to find an artful shape for the vast and confounding things that she feels.
The opening of Noo Saro-Wiwa's engaging, amusing, and alarming Nigerian travelogue Looking for Transwonderland (Soft Skull Press; $15.95; 272 pages) might kick off a supermarket thriller: “The deep voices boomed loudly enough to jolt me from my mid-morning snooze.” It's by no means true that every book that begins with a character waking up must be bad, but there's no denying that, just like in life, opening with a jolt is rarely the dawn of anything good. Fortunately, Transwonderland quickly gets better.
Raised in England, and accustomed to first-world wifi, Saro-Wiwa was born in Nigeria, where her activist father was executed in 1995. In the book, she immerses herself fully in a country she never much liked on her family vacations there in the 1980s.
What she finds makes compelling reading. She evokes Lagos in its full crazy boil: terrifying rides on okada motorbikes; a population desperate to get indoors before dark, when the thieves take over; the hollering of evangelical street preachers; low-level politicians who insist on being called “your excellency;” street kids who are born and die without ever leaving an imprint on any official record. The Transwonderland of the title is a Nigerian amusement park now gone to pot. More interesting than that are the often-bootlegged, made-on-the-cheap Nollywood movies she catches on TV and (once) in an actual movie theater, dramatic tales of sin and redemption steeped in southern Nigeria's mash-up religiosity of animism, witchcraft, and prosperity gospel.
Saro-Wiwa can be prickly, in an amusing way, and she's honest about her difficulties adapting to life far from the comforts of suburban London. But by the end, after she's donned a djellaba and surveyed Nigeria's northern, Muslim cities, Saro-Wiwa has made her peace with her homeland. Unlike Schwarzenbach, who felt so stranded abroad, Saro-Wiwa has the benefit of our new cultural understanding of physical journeys as narrative journeys of self — journeys that by their very definition are almost inevitably triumphant. So here there's never any doubt about whether the book will get finished or whether the writer will be better off for having journeyed. The one thing Looking for Transwonderland is missing, other than a strong opening, is that feeling Saro-Wiwa suffered briefly on a Nigerian roller-coaster: a sense that the narrative might ever spin fully out of control.