Book review: The Lost Trail of the Sahara ~ R. Frison Roche


R Frison Roche, 1956 (o/p)

Translated by none other than Paul Bowles (see Sheltering Sky), Lost Trail is a fictional Saharan adventure by an explorer and mountaineer who travelled extensively in the desert before the war. In the 1930s he led an expedition to make the first ascent of Garet El Djenoun in the Tefedest.

It tells the tale of Beaufort, a rookie soldier sent out into the Saharan summer on a long and dangerous mission to track down a renegade Tuareg, Akou, accused of murder. Beaufort is accompanied by a scientist Lignac to provide a cover story for the mission, and the band of conscripts and local guides, both Tuareg and Chaamba, who make up the caravan which reaches out from the Hoggar into the then unknown northern Tenere.

Misfortunes, both random and sinister befall the caravan, as suspicions grow that the wily Tuareg know more than they admit about the location of Akou. Predations weigh down the convoy which eventually is singlehandedly ambushed by Akou and his wicked accessory, Tmara. But, providence wins the day, the baddies are vanquished, some of the goodies are sacrificed, though the book ends rather ambiguously with the remainder of the caravan trudging ever deeper into the Tenere to see what they might find. A rather lame subplot about Lignac, slowly uncovering a lost Phoenician trade route across the Tenere (akin to the real Garamantean chariot route) gives the book its title.

Frison’s yarn has an authenticity, written by a Saharan of the desert born, a fact which, like Asher’s Sandstorm, always makes such books especially satisfying to those few who know the region. What is particularly interesting, especially for a Frenchman, is the light he casts on the Tuaregs and their long-time enemies, the Chaambi Arabs of the north. The former come across as sly and untrustworthy while the Arabs are painted in more rosey hues, possessing the traditional virtues one associates with nomads. One does wonder if Frison’s fiction was coloured by real life experiences.