Tuesday, 27 February 2018

An Incredible Book Launch

At the end of last month, translator Alison Falls gave a talk on Austrian author and explorer Max Reisch. Having translated his book An Incredible Journey for us, it seemed only fitting that she should hold a book event and talk on Max and his numerous adventures. In today's blog post, we have the transcript from her talk, so it's over to you Alison.





I must confess that from the moment I started to put a few bits of India the Shimmering Dream into English for my brother, I was hooked. I am mostly an armchair traveller, but I would like to think that these books appeal to genuine long distance travellers as well. But why exactly was I hooked?

  • Because of the stories – one of the first books I remember asking for and reading when I was about 10 years old was The Kon Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl.
  • Because of the style. The language is direct, clear and personal, with not too many abstract nouns. It's no fun translating abstract nouns from german. No high-flown philosophy here, then.
  • Because of the history. In the aftermath of the First World War, as we know, German speaking lands were in a ghastly mess and Fascism was poised to pick up the pieces. Austria was scarcely a real country, just a rump of the old Habsburg empire. But, Max Reisch does not mention the political situation of his homeland in any of his books. Even in the war memoir Out of the Rat Trap he gets away with laconic allusions. It has been called the only war book in which not a single shot is fired. Not totally true, but Max's eyes are set on a wider world. And by his own confession, he is an optimist. We need a few optimists in 2018, as much as in 1935. So, who was he and what was his background?
Maximilian Felix Gottfried Reisch, to give him his full name, was born in Kufstein in 1912  – the same year, incidentally, as fellow Austrian Heinrich Harrer whom we know from Seven Years in Tibet, but while Harrer was a professional sportsman and mountaineer, Reisch's passion was motor travel, beginning, significantly with motorcycles.

His was a  family of business people going back many generations. They were formidable entrepreneurs. In the 18th century, for instance, they were candlemakers, but when towards the end of the 19th century it became evident that electric light was going to be the thing, they diversified into groceries and wines, and as railways opened up trading opportunities, they imported colonial goods – tea, coffee, cocoa, rice, spices etc. They were always on the look-out for an opportunity. They also had interests in hotels and winter sports. During the First World War, and in the face of a declining economy, Max Reisch's father Hans August Reisch decided to diversify and bought a vineyard in the South Tirol. He knew nothing about growing wine, but he soon learned, moved down to Bolzano (Bozen) for a few years and got involved in all the local business projects.

As a young man, before he worked in the family firm, he had already acquired a Puch, Modell B, Bj, 1904, 254ccm, 2.75hp, top speed 45km/h, with no clutch or gears. On this motorcycle, in 1905 Hans August rode from Kufstein, over the Alps to the Mediterranean (which was no mean feat), and, wrote it all up for a motorcycle magazine. The tradition was established. Max writes that, as a small boy he also got the bug, lying on the floor with his father under the bike, and learning the 'clever arrangements of wheels and levers.'

Max Reisch's older brother Hans Friedrich was the one destined to go into the family business, but old man Reisch decided that his second son, Max, who showed a gift for draughtsmanship, should be an architect. He was duly sent off to Vienna to study architecture, but it wasn't long before he decided that trade and transport geography was much more interesting, so he swapped courses. He somehow forgot to tell his father what he had done, and old Hans August was not best pleased. He promptly cut off his son's allowance and told him to make his own way. I think this was only a temporary measure, to see if Max would rise to the occasion. He certainly did. He got himself a job as a film courier, which involved riding a motorcycle round Vienna delivering film canisters to cinemas. He eventually acquired a motorcycle of his own and went off on some Alpine trips. These, like his father, he wrote up for the magazine. He was well on his way. 

But he was longing for the big adventure, the really big one. He wanted to be an explorer, like his hero the great Swedish/German geographer Sven Hedin (1865 - 1952), and he wanted to see wonderful, mythical places, straight out of The Arabian Nights, like in the adventure novels of the famous German writer Karl May (who, incidentally, never travelled anywhere except in his imagination!). These are the two great motives of Max's journeys: he wants to boldly go where none have gone before (not with a motor vehicle, anyway), and he wants, as he put it himself, to have tales to tell his grandchildren. 

The idea Max came up with was to go overland to India, as Alexander the Great had done with his armies. The great Sven Hedin had made his travels into Asia with camels and other pack animals. It seemed obvious to Max that it must be possible to travel to India overland by motorcycle. After all, the trade routes already existed on the ground. 

He was keen as mustard to have a go, but his university professor in Vienna, Bruno Dietrich, wisely persuaded him to do a trial run to the Sahara first. There's a lot of desert on the way to India, and so Max learned to ride in arid conditions and control his motor cycle in loose sand – all vital experience. As a pillion passenger, he found Alfred Schricker who was prepared to go halves on the expense. Max always travelled with a partner and he always found sponsorship for his trips. In true entrepreneurial fashion, his father insisted on it, and for Max it was a point of honour. He financed the trips further by journalism. The articles he wrote home for the India trip were not written up as a book until after World War II. The great India journey of 1933 is described in India The Shimmering Dream. He took a light motorcycle, an Austrian-built Puch 250cc, carrying luggage which included cameras and a typewriter, as well as tents, sleeping bags, water fuel etc, and a pillion passenger, Herbert Tichy, who went on to become a traveller and mountaineer in his own right. The India trip remains the most astounding achievement and the book has never been out of print in German. The two young men nearly died several times.

Once back in Vienna, Max had to catch up with his studies and pass exams. He was cock-a-hoop with the fame he had earned, but the university did not let him get away with it. An Incredible Journey opens with Max telling a tale against himself. To cheer himself up, he says, he began to plan a new trip, by motorcycle to China, but when he put his proposals to the Puch management, the Director suggested using the new Steyr 100 motor car, a modest domestic
model, but "The man in the street must feel he could drive his Steyr 100 to China too!" Puch stipulated that the engine and chassis must not be adapted in any way, but he had a free hand with designing the bodywork for the trip. Max's partner on this trip was Helmuth Hahmann, only 19 years old but already a gifted mechanic. He certainly had his work cut out. The car had its bodywork revised in Baghdad, and the gearbox fell apart at least three times, but the car got to Kolkata, then through the jungles of South East Asia, through China in the midst of a civil war, all the way to Shanghai, then through Japan, and finally from Seattle across the United States (with a brief and disastrous excursion into Mexico), to sail home in triumph from New York to Bremerhaven, and so to Vienna. This car still exists. So do all of Reisch's vehicles. They form part of the Reisch Collection, and if you contact his son Peter you can still see them. They are still garaged at the family home in Bolzano, South Tyrol, although Peter is hoping to find a permanent home for them in Austria one day. The trip took them 19 months, from late April 1935 to December 1936.

For me, the personality of Max as a writer is vivid. He has a youthful enthusiasm that leaps out over more than 80 years and makes me feel I was there. Helene Hanff, in that book of books 84 Charing Cross Road, says she is a great fan of 'I was there' stories. So am I. 

There is also the rather ambivalent pleasure of being seen as other see us. On the round-the-world trip, Max spends a longish time in British India, including Burma and the Shan States. He's really quite a fan of the British, and quite well aware that when he is invited for a drink, or even a cup of tea, he is being gently interrogated. From the British sphere of influence, they continue into French Indo-China, and then into China which is really in a state of civil war. Even so, they begin to learn a lot about daily life and culture. They often stay with missionaries deep in the country. Max was advised to grow a beard in order to gain respect in China as an 'old' man. This works pretty well, except for being sometimes mistaken for a Christian missionary and begged for a blessing. However, things are different when they get to Shanghai and experience the dazzling international social life. We are certainly not told all that goes on, but it is here that the beard meets its fate. 

I could go on with descriptions of staying in a traditional guest house in Japan (the attention of geisha girls of the the hotel staff, scalding hot baths), the novelty of auto camps in America, breaking down in the Mexican desert, getting a new differential cage built by a backwoodsman in Laredo, driving 2100km in 40 hours non-stop.

Then, of course, the big question: what happened to Max Reisch in World War II? And for that, you must read Out of the Rat Trap, where the Libyan desert under Rommel becomes Max's next big adventure. When the Axis troops surrendered in Tunisia in May 1943, he got hold of a fishing boat, never having sailed before, and eventually escaped over the Mediterranean to Sicily, with six other men – and a dog. Jerome K. Jerome could not have told it better. However, this was war. Here is what happened as Reisch and his engineer Stempian are taking the boat down the coast to a hideaway to fit it out. It is a maiden voyage. Suddenly a flight of Italian troop transport planes roars over-head. Reisch and Stempian turn around and rescue as many men as they can from the water. It is a genuinely harrowing experience. 

Reisch died at the age of only 72, in 1985. His outlook was optimistic to the last. When told that he was terminally ill, he is reported as saying, "Well, I'm not really 72, I'm 102, because the years in the desert count double."



An Incredible Journey is available now, and India The Shimmering Dream will be arriving in the summer.