“Hitchhikers” by Sanmao, translated by Mike Fu
Stella Jiayue Zhu, 31/3/21
Virginia Woolf once wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction, she must have a room of her own. The lesson carries over mutatis mutandis to Sanmao’s Hitchhikers: in order for a woman to fully access life in the desert, she must have a car.
Hitchhikers is, straightforwardly, a story about picking up hitchhikers in the Sahara Desert. This is a simple setup, but not easy to execute in a fresh way. In the popular imagination, ‘desert’, ‘hitchhiking’, and ‘Africa’ are common objects of reductive aestheticization. They serve, often, as mere symbols for the exotic and fantastical. The story of Hitchhikers, with its lively and trusting protagonist, is romantic to the core. But it manages to avoid the trappings of banality by opening with a reminder that life in the desert is hard in ordinary, tangible ways. Water was expensive. Fetching it was strenuous. Most importantly, deprived of access to transport, living in the desert was lonely and monotonous.
The turning point came when José, the narrator’s fiancé, brought home a car, which finally allowed her to travel. As she wandered the desert and encountered a diverse array of people, the readers are brought along to meet the desert’s real residents: the little boy trudging through a sandstorm for fear of losing his bike, the young soldier putting on pristine white gloves just to see a movie, and the out-of-town prostitute who felt quite smug about her financial shrewdness, just to name a few. They are, the narrator concludes, ultimately just normal people. But that is precisely why this story is excellent. It presents the ordinary life in its charming concreteness and depicts the human experience with minimal moralization.
Nowadays, many of us are confined to our homes. In some cases, and often for good causes, we are prevented from going out for a jog or visiting family and friends. As we long for normalcy and for the ‘pleasure of wandering in the fresh air of the open land’, in Sanmao’s own words, we can at least find comfort in Hitchhikers. It channels our imagination, providing an escape to a foreign landscape in vivid colours. More importantly, it reminds us that solitude can be overcome. Regardless of where we live, even in seeming seclusion, there are still ways to connect with and care for one another, if only we are attentive.