She dressed as a man. Born Russian, she moved to North Africa, converted to Islam, joined a Sufi sect. She drank, smoked hashish, slept with any man she pleased. An assassin failed to kill her, but succeeded in nearly hacking her arm off. In 1904, when she was just 27, she died -- actually: drowned in a flash flood -- in the desert, leaving behind a handful of short stories, a thin novel and a legend so compelling she became the subject of a French film.
If you've read The Wilder Shores of Love, you know Isabelle Eberhardt as an unforgettable character, larger than life by several magnitudes. But a friend suggested she was too good a writer to be left in the suburbs of literary celebrity, so I settled in with eleven of her stories -- 50 pages of barely disguised non-fiction in a book called The Oblivion Seekers.
I had an unforgettable hour.
Start with the title, which is both appropriate and disturbing. In contemporary fiction, characters are generally trying to Get Somewhere: marry up, make a fortune, triumph over circumstance. Eberhardt's characters -- and, for that matter, Eberhardt -- are going in the opposite direction. All they want is to be left alone. And that, more often than not, means they're nobodies. Vagrants. Vagabonds.
This does not mean they are losers. Their quest is exalted --- they seek enlightenment. Which can only be obtained through self-purification. No possessions. No family. No career. Just endless wandering. Poverty. And, of course, the drugs that push attention inward: hashish and kif. "Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco's underworld," Eberhardt writes, "such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight."
Eberhardt envied these men. And had the astonishing courage to become one of them: "As a nomad who has no country besides Islam and neither family nor close friends, I shall wend my way through life until it is time for that everlasting sleep inside the grave."
So what we get in these stories is a stripped-down world. Sunlight. Wind. Weather. Chanting. Prayer. Daily life, endlessly repeated.
In the first story, a wayfarer walks and walks, and when his arms and legs grow heavy, there are "no prayers, no medicines, merely the ineffable happiness of dying."
In another story, a man escapes a brutal father by joining the army. That life has advantages: food, shelter, the right to "get drunk, gamble and go after women." That comes to bore him. At the earliest opportunity, he returns home. But there he is regarded as a soldier --- a suspicious character. Though not to his brother's wife, who sees him as a hero and takes him as a lover. How can this story end? Not the way you think.
In the third story, a prostitute finds true love. For a while. In the end, she pays.
In the fourth, a French man who has come to Algeria to make some money comes to see the simple beauty of life on the farm -- and he becomes a Moslem.
My favorite story, "Criminal," is a seven-page chronicle of colonialism in action. The French have decided to buy a valley. The only question: how much will they pay the Algerians who have owned the land for generations? The answer is shocking. So is the reaction. The story ends with a stunning sentence: "Crime, particularly among the poor and downtrodden, is often a last gesture of liberty."
There is magic in these stories, as there is in any fiction where life has been reduced to the basics and interior travel is just a puff away. To us, it may seem as if Isabelle Eberhardt goes too far. On every page. She exults in that: "By advancing into unknown territories, I entered into my life."
And that takes her somewhere we may think is foreign to us. "I had a fantasy," she writes in one story, "of being lifted up and carried off in the enormous embrace of a winged monster, come to destroy us all." Not your fantasy? Really? Never?
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]