December 2012

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Bleak

Death in Persia by the Swiss born writer, journalist, and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach opens bleakly -- and perhaps even more so than its title portends it to end. "This book will bring little joy to the reader," the preface begins. "It will not even comfort him nor raise his spirits such as sad books very often can do according to a common belief that suffering has a moral strength if only endured in the proper way." "If an author's sole aim is to rouse the sympathy of her readers," that selfsame author goes on in the next paragraph, "she is bound to fail in this case -- for we can only hope for sympathy and understanding if our failures can be explained, our defeats are valiantly fought and our suffering is the inevitable consequence of rational events."

And Death in Persia continues bleakly. Schwarzenbach's book is a collage of travelogue, recollection, fragmentary dialogue (both actual and abstract), and hopeless love story, the representation of which the author has drawn from her travels to Persia in the 1930s. But more so than Persia itself, the setting for Death in Persia is Schwarzenbach's solitude within her surroundings; and like its narrator, the "impersonal diary" she delivers lacks a solid sense of place. Annemarie Schwarzenbach: the antifascist in self-exile from Europe, the androgynous lady lover in impossible love with the daughter of the Turkish ambassador, at the end of her strength, at the end of the world. "What happens, though," she asks herself before sparring in the next chapter with her guardian angel amid that bleaker and bleaker landscape. "Was yesterday not so full of possibilities? ...That was the life! ...What has changed since then? ...You feel weak, insipid, a dreadful, debilitating listlessness worse than malaria fever... It is far, far worse. You are alone."

But even if the principal landscape of Death in Persia is Schwarzenbach's emotional struggle, she does well to set that scene within a particular picture of the landscape of Persia. And that picture is, to be sure, a bleak one. "Below there was nothing, a dead valley far removed from the world, far removed from plants and flowers, merely stone, and a ferocious heat that clung to it as though with a thousand tentacles." The Persia of Death in Persia is, as Schwarzenbach asserts in her preface, preternatural ("not hostile, merely too vast"). Her description of the trip between Tehran and the Lar Valley near Mount Damavand conjures an image of something nearly extraterrestrial. Something certainly alien. And that alien landscape is deftly conjured as the external embodiment of Schwarzenbach's alienation and self-abnegation. That Persian landscape is a mirror for its narrator, as bleakly specular as the river water at night as it's described in English by Lucy Renner Jones, whose measured but lyrical translation surely heightens the experience of Schwarzenbach's desperate rhapsody.

In the end, of course, the narrator's beloved does die. But still, Death in Persia is rhapsodic. (Maybe miserably and desperately so, but rhapsodic nonetheless.) Schwarzenbach's love of that ambassador's daughter may have been forbidden her, but she did love. She may have been physically uprooted by the demands of her political positions, but she stood by her convictions. For all of its bleakness -- and even for the subjects of death and of the author's constant fear and alienation -- Death in Persia is a testament of passionate living. At the very least, in English translation it is a welcome new light (albeit bleak) onto the life and work of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who deserves worldwide discovery in tandem with her rediscovery among German language readers. (Sadly, the afterword by Roger Perret that came appended to this particular translation seems to gloss over the author's politics and sexuality -- not to mention that of her onetime husband Claude Clarac and of her confidant Klaus Mann, two of the real life personages who also feature in the book and in the afterword -- and thereby might obscure a part of Schwarzenbach's biography important for an audience only newly acquainted with the author.)

In the end, the "failure" that Schwarzenbach proclaims in her preface may not be rational or explicable. Has she found moral strength in suffering? Perhaps the author ultimately came to an opposite conclusion, somewhere far away from the Persia of her book. But its spirit nonetheless merits sympathy. As that preface closes, who doesn't relate:

O, to awake once more without anxiety, not alone for once, not abandoned to fear! To feel the contented breathing of the world!

O, to live again!

And now, with this translation, Annemarie Schwarzenbach does.

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