Before I set off on my travels earlier in the month, I read a slim Virago Traveller volume which I thought would be an excellent choice not only for All Virago/All August, but also for #WITmonth. Alas, I don’t think it actually counts for the latter as although the author, Ella K. Maillart, was Swiss, as far as I can tell she wrote this particular book in English. However, it was a fascinating read and so I’m very glad I was prompted to take it off the shelves!

Maillart was born in Geneva in 1903 to a Swiss father and Danish mother; an inveterate traveller, she’s described on Wikipedia as an adventurer, travel writer, photographer and sportswoman. Certainly, she had a lively life; as well as a number of sailing escapades when young, she competed in sailing at the 1924 Olympics and was an international skier. From the 1930s she travelled widely, exploring many of the Muslim republics of the USSR, as well as other parts of Asia, and although her early books were written in French, she later switched to English. The book I chose to read is “The Cruel Way”, and it was originally published in 1947.

“Cruel…” relates a journey Maillart undertook in 1939 from Geneva to Kabul, in the company of her friend Christina; by this point, Maillart (known as Kini), was a veteran traveller and was covering some territory she’d been through before. Kini is trying to escape from the madness of the Western world and the coming conflict in Europe, looking to Eastern beliefs and philosophies for some kind of understanding and meaning, a guide to how to live. However, there is also another purpose to the trip, as Christina is struggling with drug addiction and the aftermath of treatment for this; her need is to escape from herself in a way, and the turn of mind which is is driving her to the drugs. So the two women set off in Christina’s Ford to head for Afghanistan; the route will take them through Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran; and it will stretch them, as well as wreaking havoc with their poor car, forced through all sorts of difficult terrain!

Springtime and a road wide open ahead, when you are free to drive on for thousands of miles, free to camp or eat, to stop or change itinerary at will, can give a great exhilaration. Only leaving the harbour in one’s own boat could one be more deeply stirred, for at sea the whole immensity is offered – no roads to force the keel along given lines.

It’s worth noting that my Virago edition of this fascinating book was published by Virago in 1986, when Maillart was still alive, as presumably were family members of Christina; because that name is, of course, a pseudonym, and we now know that her real identity was Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a fellow Swiss author, who tragically died young. I imagine if there are more modern editions of the book they might give more background information about this, but I didn’t feel this was missing or that I needed it while I was journeying with the two women; it was enough to see the landscapes in which they were travelling through Kini’s eyes.

For indeed this really was an epic journey, with Kini and Christina making their way through regions where women rarely travelled, and not on their own; yet Kini’s experience and Christina’s androgynous looks somehow got them through, and the book gives a wonderful and no doubt historically important glimpse of worlds which probably have changed beyond belief. In fact, change is starting to be reflected in the pages of the book, with the two women encountering Western engineers struggling to bring ‘civilisation’ to countries which very likely don’t want or need it; underlying most of these changes is, of course, the chance for someone to make money…

I had been sufficiently shaped, too, by life on small ships to be wedded to the wind in a sailor’s way: caressing breezes or threatening squalls arouse in me feelings that no landlubber could imagine. I am glad I left home when I was young and followed in the wake of the subtle Ulysses, glad to have lived the sea and the desert instead of helping father to air the silky softness of the deep sealskins, to value the bunches of ruffle-tailed silver foxes or by trying on the latest modeles de Paris – glad I accomplished most of what I set out to do: once and for all I know how short-lived the joys of vanity are.

Maillairt herself decries this progress, as she discusses and explores her spiritual searches for a different way of life throughout the book. She tries to help Christina, whose negative thoughts on life and herself are drawing her back to drug use, and there are several lapses along the road. When the women part company in Kabul, Christina is ‘handed over’ to friends undertaking an archaeological dig; and they were only to meet once more before Christina’s early death.

“The Cruel Way” was an absolutely fascinating read which quite brilliantly captured a moment in time, and a world on the cusp of change. Not only would Europe be torn apart by WW2, but also the Eastern countries through which the women travelled would never be the same. Maillart’s writing is beautiful, sometimes complex, and she captures the landscapes and the peoples they encounter vividly. There are moments of humour, when they struggle with local customs, and frustration when dealing with the various bureaucrats along their route. The book has little maps at the back, which I found most useful as I read, as my geography is rubbish; and there is a plates section with some of the images captured along the way (when Maillart was allowed to use her camera, as local restrictions were often in place).

Some of my Virago Travellers….

All in all, this book was a wonderful read; as well as providing vicarious travel in time and place, it gave a real insight into what the world was like in 1939, the problems women travellers still faced and Maillart’s own search for meaning and purpose. I doubt I would have picked this particular book up without the prompting of the VMC group, but I’m really glad I did. Both Maillairt and Schwarzenbach were pioneering and inspirational women, and as both have works available in English, I may well have to explore further…🤣