Book Review #4: Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao

I first discovered Sanmao in the summer of 2019. I was reading an article about Stories of the Sahara, which had been translated into English that year, right before I visited Taiwan. I asked my Taiwanese friend if she knew Sanmao or not. We even searched for the translated version of Stories of the Sahara together to no avail. 

I bought a copy of it at the beginning of 2020, and at that time I never thought I would read the same book more than twice. I was mistaken. I also thought about writing this blog post long ago but was too protective of this gem to let people in on it. And I have never felt this close to an author and her work—a connection so strong that it is painfully beautiful.

What is the book about? 

Sanmao was the pen name of Echo Chen Ping, a Taiwanese writer who spent most of her life living abroad and traveled worldwide. She decided to move to Western Sahara in the 1970s when it was a Spanish territory and was soon followed by her Spanish partner, Jose, whom she had long been with. She originally wanted to cross the Sahara Desert on foot, but after realizing what a backbreaking task it was, she married Jose and stayed in Western Sahara instead. Stories of the Sahara is a recollection of Sanmao and Jose’s quadrennial adventure in this remote land that was a Shangri-La for them. 

Why do I like it? 

Stories of the Sahara is an eclectic and addictive read. Although she is a heroine for the women and girls of the Chinese-speaking world, Sanmao is far from perfect. She is an obtuse trickster and can sometimes utter culturally insensitive opinions about the people she lives with. According to Jose, she is the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) who can transform into 72 different animals and objects—and I agree with him because this dilettante takes the role of a witch doctor, spontaneous traveler, traditional wife, best friend, kind neighbor, and unruly citizen. But, all the while, Sanmao stays loyal to herself and people around her, a human quality I am deeply attracted to. 

What question does it raise for me?

Is living in one place without yearning for faraway lands and adventures possible? Is my agonizing longing for the unknown universal? “I wanted a taste of many different lives, sophisticated or simple… A life plain as porridge would never be an option for me,” Sanmao says, justifying my personal wanderlust as I am prone to “go off the tracks of ordinary life” myself. 

My kindred spirit starts one of her stories like this, “I couldn’t understand the feeling of homesickness that I had, inexplicable and yet so decisive, towards that vast and unfamiliar land, as if echoing from a past life,” and leaves me questioning if I am hearing the same echoes that tell me how I should live my present life. 

Please read my other book reviews here.

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  1. Shahbaz Ashraf

    A worth-reading review of the book which has touched you deeply. You’ve beautifully captured Sanmao’s complex character, her transformative roles, and her loyalty to herself and others. You have also raised some interesting questions about universal longing for adventure and echoes from past lives that guide our choices. Overall, your review makes an interesting read while capturing the essence of the book.
    I can also understand your initial reluctance to share this book with others because of how precious it is to you. However, it’s also wonderful to spread the word and introduce others to such remarkable literary works.
    Thanks for sharing this review, Bahanur.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahanur

      Thank you, Shahbaz! It’s always lovely to hear from you. I think we humans are capable of spreading beauty and kindness as much as toxicity. I’m in search of those who are determined to spread the former. I’m glad you’re also the kind of person who wants to spread good content 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Shahbaz Ashraf

    My pleasure indeed!
    We must strive to spread goodness in our little humble capacities. Toxicity cannot be treated with toxicity. Only kindness and love can cure toxicity.

    Liked by 1 person

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