Reviewed by Tom Little
The Sahara has long captivated western writers, who have found its arid dunes a fertile source of inspiration down the years, and produced dozens of travelogues, novels and essays inspired by the great desert.
However, these writers have often had a troubled relationship with the Sahara, as many arrived while it was under the colonial domination of France and Spain, and while they were mesmerised by the endless dunes stretching into the horizon, they rarely paid any attention whatsoever to the desert’s inhabitants.
On those rare occasions when they noticed the locals, they were only ever background colour, intransigent and inscrutable in character and barely able to converse, with little sympathy given to their poverty, their hardships or their suffering.
Sven Lindqvist, a Swedish writer and intellectual, was fascinated by the desert as he grew up, reading books by Gide, Isabelle Eberhardt and Pierre Loti that were all coloured by journeys to the Sahara, and his own travelogues of his journey through the desert in Algeria, the Western Sahara and Niger have just been reprinted by Granta Books as Saharan Journey.
Saharan Journey is made up of Desert Divers and Exterminate All The Brutes, two books about the Sahara that both look at the impact of western colonialism on the countries that surround the desert and, beyond that, the whole of Africa.
Desert Divers describes Lindqvist’s travels to the depths of the Sahara as he follows the traces of those authors he admired so much as a young man, as he examines their own experiences. Lindqvist moves from hotel to hotel in wind-swept and sand-blown towns in Algeria and the Western Sahara, examining how writers like Andre Gide and Eugene Fromentin drew inspiration from their trips to the area but remained largely oblivious to the local population.
Lindqvist’s first Saharan travelogue is strikingly unusual and beautifully translated from the Swedish; his prose, Spartan and precise, perfectly conveys the languor and withering heat of the Saharan towns he visits, and his insights into the writings of the authors whose footsteps he is following are fascinating.
Desert Divers weaves in and out of reality, as Lindqvist meanders through the Sahara, real and literary, and he periodically interrupts his travel writing to describe bizarre dream sequences he experiences in the heat. Lindqvist also seems to have an unusual predilection for gyms, and pops in to do some weights wherever he comes across one in the towns he visits, further adding to the wonderful oddness of the book.
Exterminate All The Brutes, however, is a far more sombre, sinister affair. The title is taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, when the addled trader Kurtz scribbles the line in a pamphlet after he has set himself up as a demigod deep in the Congo. Lindqvist’s novel takes this line as a starting point to investigate the origins of genocide in Europe, and travels slowly, inexorably towards Zinder, deep in the Sahara in Niger, where a brutal massacre was carried out by the French.
Once again, Lindqvist’s fantastically original idea for a travel book through the deserts makes this well worth a read. He looks at how colonialism not only corrupted those who were sent around the world to bring it about, but engendered a mindset that allowed the conquerors to carry out dreadful crimes against humanity.