All the Roads Are Open

January 13, 2012

Travel writing raised to the level of literature

 “In June 1939, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and fellow writer Ella Maillart set out from Geneva in a Ford, heading for Afghanistan. The first women to travel Afghanistan’s Northern Road, they fled the storm brewing in Europe to seek a place untouched by what they considered to be Western neuroses.”

This statement from the jacket of All the Roads Are Open tells the story line of this slender collection of travel essays. The book’s emotional tone, however, comes not from the narrative line, which is rather sketchy, but from its evocations of the mood and character of the places and people the two travelers encountered along the way.

Interspersed throughout the book are compressed, but eloquent, reflections on the character of travel, understood both as episodes in exotic lands and as the lonely journey through life itself. Schwarzenbach’s life journey was cut short in 1942, when she was only 34 years of age. Soon after completing her Afghan journey, she died as the result of injuries suffered from falling off her bicycle near her Swiss home.

When she took her Afghan journey, Schwarzenbach was already an experienced writer. She had studied history in Zurich and Paris, earned a doctorate in 1931, and traveled extensively through Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. She had published a novel and established herself as a photojournalist. Her ability to portray the essence of travel is clear as she describes the roads that she and Maillart encountered.

“We’d been told about Balkan roads, and a whole chapter could be written about them, easily, gladly, now that our Ford, all struggles put behind it, is sailing down the coast of Anatolia, stowed on the Turkish steamer Ankara.”

Instead of going into endless detail, however, Schwarzenbach refers to the “International Road” shown on maps and then describes the eighty kilometres of asphalt in one section, a hundred kilometres in another, long stretches under construction where they no longer had a road but “drove through open fields.”

In Bulgaria “we were sent down a bridle path, through a mountain valley of fantastic beauty, the Ford patient as a mule.” In another part of the journey, “we worked our way across a bare, waterless open plain; trucks and buses had worn down the winding track, there were many stones, there was little bread, and though we managed only eight kilometres an hour, we were glad to make any headway at all.”

After little more than a page, Schwarzenbach declares “Enough of the roads; we resolved not to bore readers at home with the workaday worries of our automobile.” Thereafter, Schwarzenbach offers only briefest references to roads, the uncertainties of finding gasoline, breakdowns, and repairs.

Her ability to describe the terrain in deft, Spartan prose is one of the book’s delights. Of the Hindu Kursh she wrote:

“This desert is fearsome, a dying land. However far north I went, towards the invisible Oxus River and the forbidden Russian border, the signs of death never ceased—skeletons, potsherds and the wind-ward tells of buried cities, fortresses, graveyards. Drought, invasions by nomadic hordes…towards evening, in a darkness always suffused with milky light, as from distant stars, I sometimes turned southwards, seeking comfort, and faced the now-familiar blue mountain chain. Its reality was proven, its magical name lived on like a mighty heartbeat. And up above, in the highest still-visible gorges, great fires burned every night. Who warmed themselves there?”

Throughout the book, Schwarzenbach offers her commentary on the longer pilgimage.

“‘Our life is like a journey…’ she writes, quoting a patriotic song recalling the sacrifices of Swiss troops who fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Berezina.

“—and so the journey seems to me less an adventure and a foray into unusual realms than a concentrated likeness of our existence: residents of a city, citizens of a country, beholden to a class or a social circle and clan and entangled by professional duties, by the habits of an ‘everyday life’ woven from all these circumstances, we often feel secure, believing our house built for all the future, easily induced to believe in a constancy that makes ageing a problem for one person and each change in external circumstances a catastrophe for another.”

Although Schwarzenbach traveled in a 1939 Ford Deluxe roadster, the spirit of her journey is closely akin to the spirit of travel that bicyclists understand. She traveled slowly, closely connected to the immediacy of her surroundings, vulnerable at all times to whatever would present itself just ahead. As we read her evocative paragraphs, it is as though we had joined her on the journey.

Notes: This book is translated and introduced by Isabel Fargo Cole. Roger Perret writes an afterword. He reports that the 1939 Ford had an 18 hp motor. My friend, an expert on vintage Fords, assures me that the standard issue motor for these cars produced 85 hp.


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