To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of the day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound as long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without the hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains. (“Outside”)

For Isabelle Eberhardt, the open road was the ultimate image of freedom—a symbol of liberty that called to her again and again. As such, she had a special affinity for vagrants or wayfarers. They feature regularly in her collection of short stories and vignettes, The Oblivion Seekers. To be confined—by physical walls, by obligations, or by the restraints of fin de siècle European society—is unbearable. Her characters give up comfort, security, even love, to find a place where they belong. Quite often it is a life of solitary independence they choose. Singular in her defiance, her passion, and her determination to set her own course, it is impossible to appreciate her writing without at least a cursory look at the remarkable life from which it emerged.

Born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Nihilist, Eberhardt was an unconventional free spirit who lived a charmed, if short, life filled with drama and adventure. Her father set the groundwork, insisting she labour alongside her brothers when she was young, learn to handle a horse properly, and appear regularly in public dressed in men’s clothing. He was inadvertently preparing her for the rigors of life in the deserts of North Africa, while his demanding expectations likely fueled her longing to escape. By the time she was twenty, she had already made her first trip to Algeria and converted to Islam.

Apart from a few short trips back to Europe, Africa had claimed her soul. Yet for the French colonists, her lifestyle was nothing short of scandalous. Her preference for men’s clothing—and Arab styled at that—was looked on with suspicion. She adopted a male persona, although she rarely fooled anyone with respect to her gender, and could often be found in the café, smoking hashish, perhaps inviting a soldier home for the night. The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love.

Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes. She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. In 1901, only a stroke of dumb luck saved her from a would-be assassin when her attacker’s sword bounced off a wire, missing her head but nearly removing her arm. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles. With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married. In 1902, the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by 1904, hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. After a near fatal bout of malaria, she left the hospital against doctor’s orders to meet up with her husband. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.

At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one. The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.

Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. “Taalith” tells the tale of a young widow who chooses death over forced marriage to an older man, while “The Rival” paints the portrait of a vagrant who abandons the wandering life to settle with his beloved only to discover that his bliss cannot withstand the pull of the road; his desire for his other mistress, “tyrannical and drunk with sun” draws him back. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:

Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.

Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy.

He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. (The Rival)

Considering the time and her background, Eberhardt’s stories are particularly striking. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative. She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. This is especially powerful in the title story, “The Oblivion Seekers,” one of the few first person narratives, which describes a setting she knew well personally—a kif den in Kenadsa in the Sahara Desert. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages. Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco’s underworld such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight. (The Oblivion Seekers)

There is a mesmerizing quality to Eberhardt’s prose. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. As Bowles notes in his Preface: “Her wisdom lay in knowing that what she sought was unreachable. ‘We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us.’”

Wise words still.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabell Eberhardt is translated by Paul Bowles, and published by City Lights Books.

10 thoughts on “To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

  1. Lovely review. I read The Oblivion Seekers a little while ago and couldn’t find the words to review it. It is a strange little book, quite captivating, raw and direct. Her early death killed a real talent, and it’s a shame, now, that this is all we have of her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating! I’ve been trying to read more African prose this year and have just picked at the edges of it so far. The public library has a biography of her, in French, which looks interesting, too (but for use in library only), a volume of non-fiction and one of her diaries, which all add to the intrigue. Was there biographical information included in this collection? What a wonder she must have been!

    Liked by 1 person

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