The Oblivion Seekers

Review by Marta Turnbull

I feel like I just time traveled through northern Africa of the early 1900’s. The Oblivion Seekers (translated by Paul Bowles) is a little book of short stories about dreamy desert landscapes; scruffy smoky kif dens; and the vagabond’s tales of impermanence.

My two favorite stories are “Pencilled Notes,” and the one for which the book is named, “The Oblivion Seekers.” Together the collection hints at author, Isabelle Eberhardt’s, extraordinary life. After all, how could she have documented the raw cultural details described in these stories without dressing as an Arab man and living a nomadic life?

If you have not heard of Isabelle Eberhardt (b. Geneva, Switzerland 1877; d. Ain Sefra, Algeria 1904), you should look her up. She was raised as an anarchist, converted to Islam, traveled solo in Africa as a transvestite Arab man and was multilingual. Her first language was Russian; she wrote mostly in French, and was fluent in Arabic. She was suspicious of conventions and settling down, consciously living a free life. In “Pencilled Notes,” she extols the virtues of the vagabond’s life by writing, “To the one who understands the value and the delectable flavor of solitary freedom (for no one is free who is not alone) leaving is the bravest and finest act of all.” Eberhardt moved throughout northern Africa, as well as back and forth to Europe. Despite her nomadic life, she was a disciplined writer and journalist. She also had enemies. She was viciously attacked at one point, sustaining serious injuries. And later she, some say mysteriously, died in a flood at age 27. I recommend this little 88-page volume to you.

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