Myanmar’s latest UNESCO World Heritage site, Bagan, has over 3,000 Buddhist monuments dating between 11th and 13th centuries
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One of the big surprises of this travelogue is how little it shows of the actual eponymous place (though the narrator repeatedly states her fascination) and how much it centres the writer herself, with the Sahrawi the (more fascinating) supporting cast. A Chinese cult classic travelogue from the 19th century, there’s a lot in Stories of the Sahara that defeats expectations. Much of it is down to the author herself—a bohemian woman who thinks of home as her mother’s household in Taiwan, and yet identifies with the Spanish colonisers as her people. She turns popular ideas about the Chinese of the 1940s (puritanical, repressed, regimented) on their head with her lack of political correctness and free-spirited, outspoken ways, referencing Western popular culture of the Twilight Zone variety as well as Chinese art and literature. It’s frightfully modern and painfully superstitious at once.
However, at least some of the surprises are down to the translating and editing efforts—which is why I suggest starting with the back of the book and keeping Google Translate called up on your smartphone You will be less befuddled with at least the sketch of a background provided, however unsatisfactory and frustrating the lack of a more cogent biography, chronology (if not actual dates) or annotations may prove. One wonders, too, at the lack of maps and photos, surely easy enough to provide from the period, even if not Sanmao’s own (though with all the focus on her camera, you would think at least a plate or two should be forthcoming in this first-of-a-kind effort from a leading global publisher).
But back to Sanmao, whose adopted pen names are both tributes that are in turn still returned by contemporary Chinese Echoes. At once, she is an intrepid traveller, her wanderlust making a stranger of her everywhere she goes and yet at home as much in Taiwan and Madrid as in the Cemetery District she evidences such ambivalence towards. What makes her narratives (often journalistic as much as subjective) compelling, however, are the immediacy and authenticity of her voice.
She refreshingly sidesteps the revisionist impulse to try and reconcile her perspectives retrospectively, so that she is often contradicting herself on her own impressions and emotions recorded over time, the more startling given the antichronology of the arrangement of these essays. At other times, her ambiguity seems more deliberate and deliberated, as with her story of her mother-in-law, presented with humour, but a shifting objective and target.
It can be exasperating for the current readers to note her double standards when she mocks the Sahrawi desire for self-determination until roused by Nazi talk among the Spanish and their colonial arrogance directed against the Chinese. She condescends to the Sahrawi, a voyeur and a peeping Tom even upon their ablutions while frantic over slavery and virtue signalling that she always takes consent for photography, even as she abandons all political correctness to invade privacy in bathhouses and enema sessions. Sometimes, to the same characters, she is tender and sometimes contemptuous and exasperated. In her pride at playing doctor, there appears something of an internalised white savior complex. There is little enough till the penultimate account of the anti-colonial struggles of the Western Sahara, as though Sanmao is either oblivious or disbelieving of the Sahrawi’s rights, and there is often a racist colour to her attitudes. At the same time, it is telling that ultimately, these are stories about her interactions more with people—be they hitchhikers, drunk and mad sergeants, angry djinns or ghosts, or strange artists and stinking, stealing women, chancy prostitute and local simpleton, or her spouse Jose—than the place that she avows is the prime draw.
However, maintaining these shades of greyscale is an editorial choice that does elevate the book, a stance that is perhaps captured in the cover image, which perhaps foreshadowed Sanmao’s untold end at her own, still far from ancient hand. The reader is left with unquenched curiosity, about place and people and presenter and all, and therein is Sanmao’s success.
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