I Couldn’t Read This Author’s Memoir in Chinese—So I Learned Spanish

I was fascinated with Taiwanese writer Sanmao, but I can’t read her language, and she didn’t write in mine

Why did I decide to learn Spanish? The short answer is that I wanted to read a certain book. The long answer is more complicated, but it begins, like that book, with a young Taiwanese writer named Sanmao, her Spanish husband, and the Sahara desert.

The book is called Stories of the Sahara, or Diarios del Sáhara if you’re reading it in Spanish, but it might as well be The Thousand and One Nights for the hold it has on me and scores of other readers, most of them in the author’s native China and Taiwan. Diarios is a collection of personal essays, a chronicle of one plucky Chinese woman’s marriage to a Spanish man and her adventures in what was, in the 1970s, the Spanish Sahara. It is as addictive as a daytime soap, and like any good soap opera, it seems too outrageous to be real. The author steal souls with her camera, doles out Chinese medicine and aspirin to los saharauis, and somehow gets roped into playing midwife for her neighbor’s daughter. She gets her driver’s license while evading the civil guard, who want to write her up for months of illegal driving. She endures an exhausting family reunion and eventually wins the love of her Spanish in-laws. She even writes a love letter for a delusional shopkeeper and tries to save a resistance fighter’s wife from being publicly executed.

But I don’t know any of this, not yet. I’m not even really looking for Sanmao, but she — or her ghost — finds me anyway. I’m Googling another Chinese writer, a very famous, very literary Chinese writer, when I glance down and see her photograph in Google’s little salad bar of related searches. People also search for…and there she is, neatly labeled with that odd, Madonna-like mononym, looking just a bit like a Chinese Frida Kahlo.

Sanmao’s picture on Wikipedia

We have bohemian artist types? I think, and click on her picture. A quick glance at her Wikipedia article confirms that, yes, we Chinese most certainly do have bohemian artist types. And Sanmao, if her Wikipedia article is to be believed, is a bohemian artist type par excellence. I scroll through her page. It’s got one of those little banners at the top to warn readers that what they’re reading might not be strictly verifiable, but I breeze right past it. The name, I learn, is a pseudonym. It refers to the protagonist of a well-known Chinese comic strip, an intrepid young homeless boy who suffers from malnutrition and therefore has only three hairs on his whole head. Sanmao the real-life traveler and writer was born Chen Maoping in Mainland China, and later moved to Taiwan. I scroll a bit faster so I can get to the good stuff, the interesting stuff, the potentially unverifiable stuff.

‘Stories of the Sahara’ is as addictive as a daytime soap, and like any good soap opera, it seems too outrageous to be real.

Ah, here it is: Dropped out of school quite early on and was tutored at home. Went to university in Madrid. Traveled. Became engaged to an older German man, who promptly dropped dead. Married a younger Spanish man, lived in the Sahara desert, wrote a best-selling book, wrote over twenty books, including a few translations of a Spanish-language comic strip, lost her husband (at age 27!) to a tragic diving accident. Traveled, lectured, lived for another twelve years. Hanged herself in a Taiwanese hospital on January 4th, 1991. A strange, unidentifiable feeling burrows up from the lower levels of my mind. It digs and scratches and finally breaks the surface. Suddenly I understand that I am reading this woman’s Wikipedia article on the anniversary of her death. The book becomes an inevitable point in my future. I need to read it; I will read it.

I am staring at an Amazon product page. Somehow I’ve managed to pull a single Spanish translation of Stories of the Sahara out of the vast sea of Chinese editions. It’s not English, but it’s something. I picture myself reading it at a snail’s pace, a dictionary in one hand and a grammar guide in the other. Forget it, I tell myself. Just wait for the English translation to drop. I do some shopping for a friend’s birthday, I look at books about the natural history of the domestic cat, I listen to a little Willie Nelson. But before too long I’m back on the product page for Diarios, feeling an itch in my purchasing finger. How hard could it be?

Unlike Japanese, which I once knew well enough to follow cheesy game shows and children’s books, and Spanish, which I figure I might be able to learn, I will never, ever be able to learn Chinese. My Cantonese is atrocious. I once asked my grandmother for a walking chicken instead of directions to King Street, and I’m an easy mark for my mother, who likes to say ridiculous things to me in Cantonese (“Lazy worm! Lazy worm! The lazy worm likes to drink tea! Drink more tea, lazy worm!”), then watch me respond, in English, to what I think is a simple request for another Coke with extra ice. My written Chinese is limited to the characters that make up my name (which, incidentally, literally means something like “Pure, Clear English”) and a handful of other words, like: person, enter, month, day, year, woman, man, tea, flower, hand. The only things I can say with any confidence in Cantonese are phrases I’ve learned from television: Move it, Kobe! Save me, I’m dying! My left eye sees ghosts! It’s the truth, and I know it as well as anyone: I’ll probably be a ghost by the time I learn enough Chinese to hold a sane conversation, let alone read a book. If I want to read Sanmao — and I do — I’m going to have to learn to read her in Spanish.

I begin having dreams in which my dead grandparents keep running into Sanmao and José in the afterlife. Sometimes they exchange glances while strolling eerie landscapes dotted with pyramids. Sometimes I’m there with my grandparents, and Sanmao and I wave at each other. One night I have a dream in which I cannot find my grandmother. This is unfortunate because I seem to require some kind of life advice. I roam the afterlife, peering into pond-sized wells, kicking up sand, sizing up the distance between where I am and where she might be. Eventually, Sanmao and José come find me. They point to a temple on a jagged cliff face. She’s busy, they say. But you can talk to us!

The Spanish-language edition of Sanmao’s book arrives nearly a month earlier than expected, considering that I’ve ordered it from the U.K. It’s a bright canary yellow, and the front cover is full of text while the back cover is full of Sanmao. She’s wandering in the desert, dressed in a loose caftan and a rather striking tribal-style necklace. One hand brushes her hair away from her face.

There are more photographs inside, mostly portraits and snapshots of Sanmao and her husband, José. Here’s Sanmao walking through the desert, José by her side. Here’s Sanmao in front of her house, José by her side. Here’s Sanmao getting her marriage license, José by her side. They’re young and beautiful and if they were alive today, I think, they’d probably be living in Taos, New Mexico. It all seems terribly romantic.

If you Google “Sanmao and José,” like I did, you’ll find no shortage of news articles that read a little like notes for a novel. The opening sentence of an article from the English edition of El País reads, “There is a grave at the cemetery on the Canarian island of La Palma that is always garlanded with fresh flowers.” The last sentence from an article in La Palma Ahora, the local paper of the Canary island where Sanmao and José lived at the time of his death, puts it like this: “La muerte de Quero en la costa de Barlovento el 30 de septiembre de 1979, en cierto modo, fue también la muerte de San Mao.” I understand enough Spanish to get the gist: the death of José was also the death of Sanmao. But I can’t help thinking that his death also gave birth to the romantic legend of Sanmao y José, whose grip on me seems to be growing. And it’s not just me. The online papers tell me that José’s grave is an established pilgrimage site for Sanmao’s readers, and that she has her own tourist route in the Canary Islands, too.

For me, however, the first leg of the journey takes place at home.

The book sits on top of a pile of junk for a few days. I’m convinced that it’ll rot in my office, unread, like some kind of moderately expensive, international doorstop. And then, very casually, I begin learning Spanish with a surprisingly good educational telenovela called Destinos — and Sanmao’s book. For a period of nearly two months, I do absolutely nothing in my spare time but watch Destinos, read Diarios, and fill notebooks with terrible, terrible Spanish. My first real sentence in Spanish is whimsical, light, and completely spontaneous: “El jaguar está en la bañera y se quiere más burbujas.”

Destinos is essentially an immersion course: you are lowered into a linguistic bubble bath and the amount of cold English water dwindles with every episode until everything, even the explanatory asides from the narrator, is in hot, frothy Spanish. The dialogue and narration become more complex as you progress, but the story, in true telenovela fashion, is so addictive that you forget all about learning verb forms and tenses and instead become obsessed with other, more pressing, concerns. Will Raquel and Arturo ever get together?! What about Don Fernando Castillo’s first wife — when do we find out where the hell she actually lives? And what about Don Fernando’s firstborn!? How is Raquel ever going to find him?!

My fascination with Sanmao is rooted in telenovela question: What’s going to happen? And now what?

I know that my fascination with Sanmao is rooted in the telenovela question, the Scheherazade question: What’s going to happen? And now what? Most of her essays revolve around her curiosity, her need to investigate the people and the world around her. She does what she does and goes where she goes because she wants to see what will happen. But my interest in her also stems from one of her more curious qualities: she’s not particularly interested in perfect outcomes. That is, she’s willing to rough it and see how things develop, warts and all. In an essay called “Empezar de cero,” or “Start from Zero,” her husband-to-be discovers that she’s brought a sack of money with her, and that it was a gift from her father. He gives her a long, serious look before throwing down the proverbial gauntlet. “You wanted to come to the Sahara because you’re a stubborn romantic, but you’ll get sick of it soon,” he tells her. “With all that money, you won’t want to live like the rest of the world.” He offers her a compromise: once she’s seen everything she wants to see and she’s finished with her trip, he’ll give notice at work and they’ll go back to Spain together. She’s spitting mad, of course. He knows that she’s an experienced traveler, although she’s never been to a place quite so rough, and he knows that the Sahara is her great dream, her great obsession. So she agrees to put the money in the bank and live only on what José can bring in. After all, she’s not here just to look. She’s here to live.

That first night, she writes, she almost froze to death. She slept in a sleeping bag on the cement floor of their house, and José wrapped himself in una fina manta he had purchased earlier that day. It must be something like a thin shawl, or a wrap. I won’t look it up, not yet. Maybe later, if it’s really killing me. I seem to be getting accustomed to this hard, rocky space between not-knowing and knowing.

Reading Sanmao in Spanish gave me an excuse to be a bona-fide learner, a truly empty vessel.

Reading Sanmao in Spanish gave me an excuse to be a bona-fide learner, a truly empty vessel. I didn’t need to know everything because I really, truly, didn’t know anything. But I wanted to know everything! If I could read half an essay a day and understand most of what was happening, I was happy. I’d got the juicy, meaty bits, and that was all that mattered. If I didn’t understand a word or two, I would keep reading. Some words I managed to figure out from the context and repeated exposure: aquello, demasiado, gritar, chillar, tienda, casarse, boda, el coche, carretera, bosque. That, too (as in demasiado pequeño, or too small), yell, screech, shop (and also tent), to marry, wedding, car, highway, forest. And some words I looked up: pintauñas, tozuda, apretarme, charlando. Nail polish, stubborn, to tighten (as in one’s belt), chatting. I was dying to know what they could tell me about not only about Sanmao’s world, but mine, too.

In a sense, we readers already know what’s going to happen: Practical, levelheaded José, who sometimes underestimates his wife but is more often in awe of her talents, is going to drown in the sea. Sanmao will soldier on for twelve more years, writing and lecturing and looking, but she, too, is going to drown. Not in the sea, but in the cold, sterile air of a hospital suite. You, my dear readers, will live a while a longer, as will I, and we both know what happens next. But what she was after — what we are after — is far more interesting. We want to see everything between the great knowing of birth and the greater unknowing of death. We want to feel it in our bones.

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