Book review: Desert Divers ~ Sven Lindqvist


Sven Lindqvist (Granta, 2000)

As a young boy Sven is captivated by a rare Swedish travelogue describing the well diggers of Touggourt in Algeria. Later on he becomes influenced by the writings of André Gide and other literary types who also spent time in North Africa. And so it seems a rather lame deal is struck with his publisher: go to North Africa, retrace the travels of some of these writers and cook up a polemical Sahara travelogue on the way.

As a selective literary colonial history of North Africa the book is OK. After skimming over St Exupery (which proves the author does not get the desert) he finds himself to Smara in the midst of the Polisario war while following Michel Vieuchange who arrived after much hardship and increasing self-delusion in 1930, disguised as a woman. The quest for Smara matched Timbuktu or Mecca at that time and Vieuchange spent just three hours there before dying on the way back to Europe. Lindqvist seems no more impressed with the place after a less strenuous journey, tellingly quoting Vieuchange “Decisions are made in ParisThey are carried out in the Sahara” Perhaps this was his conclusion on the Desert Divers project?

The Western Sahara may not be the most inspiring destination and to the author it’s as ugly and wretched as the romantic motives of the nineteenth-century intellectuals he catalogues. To underline their vanity he details the mind-boggling cruelty and atrocities committed by the French across northern Algeria which occurred right under the noses of the wandering writers like Gide. The curious fantasist Pierre Loti is ticked off and a couple of chapters of this short book seem to paraphrase Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. Why? Probably because the author liked him and the subject matter. We also get a graveside visit followed by the received text on the self-destructive life of Isabelle Eberhardt. Adopting local male dress and having turned native and Moslem with a fanatical compulsion, she at least gets off lightly in the author’s critique, being aware and rightly hostile to the vicious colonial enterprise around her.

But as a wilderness the Sahara really never gets a look in. His travels in Algeria get no further south than El Golea (another dump, in his opinion). Worse still, some chapters are separated by interminable short dream or magical realist sequences – surely the naffest literary device of all – while important questions like “How many muscles are there in a life?” are pondered over with thankful brevity. Meanwhile the autobiographer in him can’t resist recounting a lame childhood anecdote about how he was once lowered into a well to retrieve a ball. He didn’t nearly drown but he could have done and it was dead scary.

As a description of the Sahara this book barely bothers to scrape the surface. As a selective study of Saharan writers it’s lightweight and self-indulgent.

I wanted to be Saint-Ex, the flyer who does not abandon a friend in distress in the desert. I became Vieuchange, the desert wanderer who lies his way into continuing his journey, because he ‘had wanted it in Paris’.

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