A review of Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao, translated from the Chinese by Mike Fu
The very first time I read about Sanmao I was smitten. Remembering her aunt in an article for Words Without Borders, Jessica Chen conjured up a character so enthralling that I found – still do find – it hard to believe I’d never come across her before. Born in 1943 in China, Sanmao grew up in Taiwan and by the age of twenty-four had embarked on ‘fourteen years of vagabonding’ that would see her study and work in Spain, the USA, Germany and, finally, Western Sahara, where she lived for a period of around six years with her Spanish husband, José Maria Quero. During this time she wrote extensively for Chinese publications, mainly the United Daily News, and her tales of life in a foreign land were eventually collected into a book, Stories of the Sahara. Sanmao left Western Sahara when José died in a diving accident in 1979, and after twelve years of living in Taiwan and mainland China she committed suicide in 1991.
Although I read that it continues to inspire thousands of young Chinese men and especially women, Stories of the Sahara was only made available in English translation, courtesy of Mike Fu, in late 2019. Perhaps we have a tendency to read travel writing only by authors from our own cultures – which, in many ways, is understandable: travel writing operates very much on outside-in principles, after all – but having read Sanmao’s book I believe this is a mistake. Particularly in the case of this extraordinary woman, who, as far as I can tell, sloughed off all cultural and linguistic shackles to become a citizen of everywhere and nowhere, a true woman of the world.
Being a citizen of everywhere and nowhere does, of course, imply a good degree of loneliness. Wherever she went or lived, Sanmao was different, and she makes this painfully clear in her writing. Mostly it is taken in good part – she often seems to regard her outsider status as a boon, allowing her to get away with things that no one else would, particularly in the socially and politically complex setting of Western Sahara – but behind the rather brash humour there is a brittle edge to her voice, a fragility about her writing, that made me instantly warm to her. Sanmao doesn’t often write directly about deep feelings, or certainly not in an emotionally weighted manner. Yet her voice is so powerful, so strongly unique, that she still manages to make them abundantly clear.
Sanmao was tough – no doubt about it. You would have to be resilient, I think, to live the life that she did, and there is also no question that a good deal of resourcefulness and strength is required for life in the desert. From goats routinely crashing through the ceiling to neighbours breaking in to steal a pair of shoes, Sanmao’s chronicle of Saharan living is a whirlwind of big characters, moments of hysteria, incomprehension, laughter, financial woes, mysteries, irritations large and small. ‘My life in the desert was an unfailingly colourful experience,’ she writes. ‘No longer did I know the taste of solitude.’
Because although, in many ways, she seems to have been drawn to the desert precisely for its lonely landscapes – the ‘swathe of poetic desolation’ that she describes on numerous occasions and in terms of immense beauty – Stories of the Sahara is a book that is ultimately about humanity. It is about Sanmao herself as a human: her voice is so unbridled, so direct and forthright, that this was one of those rare occasions on which I read someone’s writing and felt I really and truly knew them, impossible though that is. But it is just as much about the people who make up her Saharan community: José and his colleagues, other Spaniards who live there, but mainly the Sahrawi people she lives among as a neighbour, teacher, amateur pharmacist, outsider, oddity, sometimes friend. Her stories take us into the urban homes of inhabitants of El Aaiún, out to the sand-strewn tents of nomads moving through the desert, to local shops and driving-test centres and the camps of guerrilla commandos, to the homes of slaves and those of their owners. These episodes are, like her life, ‘unfailingly colourful’: a riot of different impressions and characters that merge into one brilliant tapestry.
With such a direct and somehow chippy voice, Sanmao does occasionally veer into uncomfortable territory. Her observations on her Sahrawi neighbours in particular can make for difficult reading, expressing as they do her frustration, incomprehension and, on occasion, outright disgust at the way they live or the traditions they follow. Mike Fu’s translator’s note is very helpful here, explaining that to leave these far from sensitive comments as they stand was a very deliberate decision. It was, I think, the right one. Sanmao was writing from a very particular position, in a very particular time and place. Even her less than edifying comments serve to underline this – her outsider status as she saw it, her cultural otherness in terms of both the Sahrawi and the Spanish communities (she is, I would argue, often equally harsh about the latter) – but what they do most of all is emphasise her humanity. Aside from these occasional ‘outbursts’, Sanmao comes across as deeply compassionate, a writer who wishes not just to observe but to get deep under the skin of her adopted home.
As a collection of articles – or stories – Stories of the Sahara is extraordinarily wide-ranging. Sanmao describes her and José’s desert courthouse wedding, long drives through the mirage-filled desert, an encounter with an evil amulet, local romances and the marrying of child brides, a Christmas-time trip to visit her Spanish in-laws, encounters she has picking up hitchhikers in the desert, violent clashes between Spanish soldiers and the Sahrawi, the public rape and murder of a woman deemed to have betrayed her community at a time when political unrest was bubbling over. In just about every way possible – structure, tone of voice, subject, style of observing – her writing is incredibly raw, but it is also filled with great beauty and a fine understanding of nuance. Sanmao knows when a few words will go a long way, when one brief incident can illustrate a much wider, infinitely more complex point.
A lot of this must, of course, be down to the skill of the translator, and I would venture to say that Mike Fu has done an excellent job. Bringing across the vagaries of Sanmao’s voice and her almost overwhelming strength of character can have been no easy feat, particularly when working from a language like Chinese, which I understand to be both very direct or rife with metaphor and complex meanings, depending on the situation. At times a little bit of explanation is necessary – in references to classical Chinese literature, for example – but other aspects, such as explanations meant for her Chinese readers or slightly more unusual turns of phrase, are incorporated fluidly into the text.
Although it certainly isn’t a primer on Western Sahara – a region of the world about which I know painfully little but now intend to try to understand better – Stories of the Sahara is a window on to a world and an extraordinary character that are both now vanished. ‘There is no other place in the world like the Sahara,’ wrote Sanmao, a sentence that conceals multitudes within its apparent simplicity. There was also, I’d venture, no other woman quite like Sanmao. And certainly no other book I have read that is like this one. A literary experience unique in subject matter and voice, it has the uncommon power of being able to expand several horizons just that little bit more.