December 2012

Daniel Shvartsman

nonfiction

Death in Persia by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, translated by Lucy Renner Jones

It's hard to avoid Annemarie Schwarzenbach's biography when dealing with her book Death in Persia. The novel, one she terms an "impersonal diary," does little to disguise its roots in reality: names go unchanged, essential plot points are corroborated, and the trials at the heart of the book mirror those that Schwarzenbach endured through much of her short life. Fortunately, both the work and the life merit a closer look.

Schwarzenbach's life was one between worlds. Born in the first half of the twentieth century, the Swiss writer grew up in a wealthy industrialist family. Her mother loved her oppressively and possessively, dressing her up as a boy to fulfill her own latent desire and disapproving of many of her adult endeavors and views. Schwarzenbach broke away to move to Weimar Berlin, where she fell in with Klaus and Erika Mann (Thomas Mann's children), turned on to morphine, pursued women as lovers, and wrote. 

Eventually, these two primary influences -- her mother and her friends -- caused both external and internal schisms in Schwarzenbach's life. In 1934, after a scandal that saw "a gang of pro-fascist rowdies" (quoted from Isabel Fargo Cole's introduction in All the Roads Are Open), possibly sent by Schwarzenbach's mother break up Erika Mann's famed Pfeffermühle cabaret, Schwarzenbach supported her friends against her mother, but lost the Manns' trust all the same. With Hitler's reign only gaining momentum in Germany, Schwarzenbach had every reason to get out of Europe.

Persia, as Iran was known just before the events in Death in Persia take place, was not so strange a location for Schwarzenbach to end up in. She had visited the country twice before 1935, and would again on her trip with Ella Maillart, immortalized in All the Roads Are Open and in Maillart's The Cruel Way. Beyond writing, she worked on archaeology expeditions there and even found a marriage of convenience (her husband Claude Carac, a gay diplomat). Persia, with its end of the world arid grandeur, its people "so alone that they are not even aware of their own poverty and misery," and its comfort with the omnipresence of death, served as the perfect backdrop for Schwarzenbach. Amidst the deserts and mountains, Schwarzenbach waged her struggles, struggles against the world, against other people, against existence, and, especially, against herself.

Death in Persia, no matter the high correlation with Schwarzenbach's real experience, is a finely crafted work. In the first half of the book, Schwarzenbach focuses on that backdrop. On a dig in the Lar Valley, the narrator finds herself at the end of the world, above an apocalyptic array of climates:

Yes, the valley leads down to Mazandaran: first, through green alpine meadows. Then through woods that soon turn into rainforest: bears, wolves, panthers and wildcats live there. Then the tropical jungle, the dunes. Finally, the Caspian Sea, grey between the wind-swept plains. The villages are magical: animal skulls bleach on their slopes, a spell surrounds them, a perfect stillness of wind.

Not long after that passage, to make sure the reader catches the scent in the air, she adds, "Animals lie asphyxiated in their path, gazelles, their beautiful eyes destroyed..."

Memories seep into this picture. The narrator recalls a visit to Moscow where she was taunted by André Malraux: "What do you want in Persia? ... Just for the sake of being far away?" "And I thought of Persia's terrible sadness..." she reflects. Another chapter finds her memories from a trip to Persepolis in the steps of the marauding Alexander the Great, weeping at the fear of a 400-mile journey, and hearing her American friend say, "This country makes cowards of people."

Against this setting, Schwarzenbach tells a tragic love story in the second half of the novel. The story is a simple one; the narrator falls for Jalé, the consumptive daughter of a Turkish diplomat. That Turkish father is an old man, one who avenges his wife's leaving him by restricting Jalé's freedom and, especially, forcing her to live in a climate hardly suited to her lungs.

The plot races along: Jalé and Schwarzenbach's tentative, tender love briefly blooms, but both characters know that either health or Jalé's father will end it. Sure enough, Jalé is not allowed to see anybody, Schwarzenbach takes sick, and the lovers are allowed one farewell scene. "Why do you think that God has turned his back on us?" the narrator pleads, "Why are we being separated?" But Jalé has already warned her, "Darling, you mustn't think anything can help us." By the time the news of death arrives, Schwarzenbach is back in the valley, at the end of the world, and it feels as if the whole country has colluded to bring death back to her.

In its barebones description, the book may seem slight, an odd mishmash of travel notes and an ahead-of-its-time lesbian love story, a curio of sorts. Schwarzenbach's perceptive writing and unsentimental tone, however, ensure that Death in Persia rises above the level of curiosity.

Two chapters, one at the beginning and one at the end of the book, stand with the best of the modern era, like a Kafka or Lispector passage if imbued with pathos and less abstract. An angel visits the narrator at her tent in the valley. The angel is no savior, no guardian; "I did not come here to relieve you of anything," he tells her, "I wanted to see if you could bear the bleakness and solitude of my country." His second visit comes as angel of death, Jalé's death. He means to free her from her obstinacy, her struggle; "I only wish you to surrender and let yourself fall." Ultimately, she succumbs.  

Schwarzenbach's life after this book was an eventful one. She survived hospitalization and a suicide attempt, earned fame as a photographer and writer, and worked against the fascists during the war. Her death, at thirty-eight, was oddly fateful: she fell off a bike when riding with no hands and injured her head, an injury she never recovered from. Her mother kept all friends from visiting her, and then burned Schwarzenbach's letters, submerging her literary oeuvre for half a century. In a sense, her death mirrored that of her lost love: "I never found out how she died. But she was alone..."

Death in Persia by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, translated by Lucy Renner Jones
Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-0857420893
156 pages