Martha Gellhorn was principally a war correspondent but seems to have travelled widely for most of her life. Her book is subtitled Five Journeys from Hell, which provides a not very subtle clue about her travel experiences. It describes her journeys in China with the unnamed other (1941), the Caribbean (1942), Africa (1962), Russia (1972) and Israel (1971).
She says that this is not a proper travel book – ‘I rarely read travel books myself. I prefer to travel’. And it’s clear that she spent most of her life travelling, with an impressive list of places she has visited.
It’s a difficult book to categorise, and that’s perhaps also true of its author. She clearly had a strong spirit of adventure, and as someone who covered every major conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the American invasion of Panama in 1989, she cannot have lacked courage or determination.
The writing is excellent, with lots of very funny, self-deprecating, black humour, and witty observations about the pitfalls of travelling generally. The only trouble is that her accounts of her journeys focus largely on her feelings of boredom, fear, exhaustion, hunger, anger and so on, with rare uplifting moments between. She also seems to have little fellow feeling for the people she comes across, and there are flashes of racism and intolerance. As her companion in China says, ‘Martha loves humanity but can’t stand people’.
I put the book down at one point, frustrated with the complaining tone, but once I had returned to it my overall impression was of a book very much worth reading.