The book’s forward describes Sanmao (born in China as Chen Ping in 1943) as a ‘rule breaker’ whose ‘gung-ho empowerment was ahead of its time’ and took her to more than 50 countries. As Sanmao herself put it: ‘a life plain as porridge would never be an option for me.’ One of the highlights of Sanmao’s odyssey was the Saharan sojourn during the 1970s. She was based, along with her husband Jose, in Spanish-owned territory: in a ‘shabby little town’ with a few streets and a couple of shops. Sanmao liked the place: the locals were friendly, the landscape was intoxicating, and a fair few comical episodes (trips to the local bath house; attempts to obtain a local driving license) make for entertaining vignettes.
A darker sensibility often hovers in the background, however. Sanmao wrote breezily but she captured the complexities of ‘learning the art of living here’. Many outsiders, according to Sanmao, experienced depression and the author had her own low moments: even, at one point, allowing a ‘subconscious impulse’ towards suicide to enter her mind. A sense of isolation and cultural difference was never quite cancelled out by the neighbours’ smiling faces, while Sanmao’s tendency to meddle in local affairs did not always go down well. Into the bargain, these were increasingly tense times in the region with calls for self-determination and independence gathering steam.
It all makes for a compelling tale of someone who was enraptured but uneasy, and Sanmao’s pluck is admirable. A fossil-hunting excursion ends up with her fighting off sinister assailants; when she learns more about the local slave trade, it is time to berate the local officials who tend to gloss over such outrages. And, come good days or bad, there was always the befuddling physical environment. ‘I found the desert to be truly charming,’ she wrote, but ‘the desert didn’t care a jot for me.’ Which is as it should be.
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