Fosco Maraini: the Soul of a Mountaineer

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Among those with whom I sailed to South Georgia was the Italian alpinist, sailor and academic Giorgio Bertone, professor of Italian Studies at the University of Genoa. As you might predict, Giorgio was almost impossibly cultured and has a great insight into some of the leading lights of Italian mountaineering. But it was when Giorgio mentioned Fosco Maraini that I became most fascinated.

Quite often on outdoor website forums someone will ask for recommendations for mountaineering or outdoor books and usually the same names will be mentioned: Jon Krakauer, Joe Simpson and so forth. But if I had to choose someone who is perhaps not much read these days and deserves to be, it would most likely be Maraini – scholar, photographer, writer, linguist, teacher and mountaineer.
As the French would say: quel homme.
He was born in Florence in 1912, to Antonio Maraini and the Anglo-Polish writer Yoï Crosse. Her story is romantic enough: a granddaughter of Andrew Crosse, the electricity pioneer, she married a Welsh officer, had two children, and then abandoned her family to elope with the diplomat Sir Coleridge Kennard. His mother, outraged, used her influence at the Foreign Office to have him posted away from Yoï’s influence, first to Rome, then to Tehran. Yoï followed him to Iran, but when Kennard lost interest, she returned to Italy.
Back in Rome, Crosse fell in love again, this time with Antonio Maraini, a sculptor of Swiss origin but very much an Italian patriot – and nine years her junior. They had Fosco, and married a couple of years later, in London in 1914, on the brink of war. A second son, who they named Thankful, was born in the same year. In the mid 1920s, as Antonio’s star rose, the family moved to the Torre di Supra, overlooking Florence. (The house is now available for rent.)
Antonio is a deeply problematic figure. He is still a well-regarded artist, one who made important contributions, for example to the funerary chapel built for Giacomo Puccini in Torre del Largo, and also as an administrator: he was a successful secretary of the Venice Biennale, determined to raise the festival’s profile in the 1930s. He was also a highly respected writer on art, and a poet too.
But Antonio was a fascist, and an enthusiastic one, even more so than Fosco’s future colleague Giuseppe Tucci, who supported Mussolini, but railed more against modernity, seeing Tibet as a haven from Western industrialism. Antonio was irrevocably stained by his support and work for Mussolini’s regime, even if he escaped any official censure for this, beyond professional obscurity following the war. His public indiscretions were forgotten in return for his absence from the Italian public’s consciousness – out of sight, out of mind.
Fosco Maraini was absolutely not a fascist, and risked everything to prove it, as we shall see. He tore up the party card his father arranged for him. (I’m reminded of Reinhold Messner, père et fils, who were similar in this.) But he shared his parents’ artistic inclinations. About the time the family moved to Florence, an aunt – I like to think the English aunt who introduced him to English food with the comment that eating was not something one should enjoy – gave him a Kodak camera and he started taking pictures.
To say he was a natural would be an understatement. He held his first exhibition in Rome at the age of 18. By the time he was 24, Fosco had won the noteworthy Ferrania Prize, which included the gift of a Leica IIIA. This would be the camera he used on most of his expeditions – and he had those expeditions engraved on the Leica’s base plate.
Maraini’s images are perhaps the most enduring part of his legacy; Giorgio Bertone mentioned Fosco to me because he had recently curated an exhibition of his photographs, a few of which are online.
The hallmark of his photography, for me, is its sensitivity. His composition was always robust, and there’s a hint of that graphic strength deliberately chanced upon which characterises the work of someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson. But Maraini’s photography is informed by the same qualities that made him such a great ethnologist. He was modest and attentive, subsumed by and sympathetic to the worlds he explored without ever being blinded by their shortcomings.
Anyway, after we got home Giorgio put me on to the album of Maraini’s images that was published to coincide with his first American exhibition, held at the Tenri Galley in New York in the spring of 1999: Acts of Photography, Acts of Love. (I’ve just got a copy, and was so overwhelmed with excitement I had to say something. Hence this wafflage.)
The bulk of the photographs are from Japan and Tibet, with a fair number also from an unpublished project he did Sicily and some of the images he took in the Karakoram and Hindu Kush. The most famous are his photographs of the Ama pearl divers of Hekura-jima but there are images too of the Ainu, who got to know well as an anthropologist, and of course Tibet.
He was, linguistically speaking, prodigiously gifted, not just in his ability to acquire languages – notably Tibetan and Japanese – but also in his playfulness with language, his appreciation of its sound and idiom which is reflected in his poetry. In his early 20s he taught English for the Livorno Naval Academy, and sailed on their training ship to Egypt, Syria and Turkey, stoking his passion for more distant cultures.
He married young, to a Sicilian aristocrat, the Princess Topazia Alliata di Salaparuta. (‘I felt like I had married a sound,’ he wrote years later.) To announce the wedding they sent her grand and unyielding family – think Tomasi’s The Leopard – a drawing of the happy couple viewed together from behind, quite naked, on a deserted beach. The family were furious. Their daughter, the celebrated Italian feminist and writer Dacia, was born in November 1936.
She admired Fosco’s lack of social pretension: ‘I was on the side of my father, who had given a kick in the teeth to the stupidities of those arrogant princes by turning down the title of Count, his due as the husband of the eldest daughter of the Duke who left no other heirs.’
Before Dacia was a year old, Fosco was gone on his first great adventure. He wrote to Giuseppe Tucci, who had recently established the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East. (His cofounder was Giovanni Gentile, the man Mussolini dubbed the ‘philosopher of Fascism’ who was shot dead by partisans in 1944 in Florence. That must have given Antonio Maraini a shock, in his tower above the city.)
Tucci was planning another expedition to Tibet, and Maraini was invited to go with him as photographer. This was the first of two journeys he made with Tucci, before and after the war, the second with Tenzing Norgay as factotum. (I had a correspondence with Maraini about this, when I was writing my biography of Tenzing. It is one of many professional regrets that I didn’t beg a personal interview.)
Riccardo Cassin, Fosco Maraini and Tenzing Norgay, from left to right, at Trento in the mid 1950s.
Riccardo Cassin, Fosco Maraini and Tenzing Norgay, from left to right, at Trento in the mid 1950s.
In 1938, having got his degree, Maraini went to Japan, on a scholarship to study anthropology, choosing as his subject the Ainu. Offered a two-year contract as an assistant professor at the University of Hokkaido, he decided to bring his wife and daughter to Japan. When that contract ended in 1941, and with a return to Italy impossible, he became a reader in Italian at Kyoto University. (Maraini has the rare distinction of having taught Italian in Japan and Japanese in Italy.)
The crisis came in 1943, when Mussolini’s regime collapsed and Italy was partitioned. The Japanese authorities asked Fosco and Topazia which side they were on. It would have been easy, especially given what they knew about the likely consequences, to choose Japan’s ally, but they didn’t, and within days the whole family, including three young children, were confined to a prisoner-of-war camp at Nagoya.
The privations of the camp can only be imagined, and suffering near-starvation Maraini did something that might seem inexplicable to us, but made sense, to him at least, in the context of Japanese society – he elected to cut off his little finger and present it to the camp commandant as an offering. This extreme act of self-mutilation resulted in improved conditions for his family and others in the camp. (Oddly, in his obituary for The Independent, the poet James Kirkup dismissed this action as ineffective and melodramatic. Clearly a man who never cut off one of his own fingers.)
Maraini wrote his two most significant books after the war, Secret Tibet, based on his journeys with Tucci, with whom he continued to have a relationship, albeit a tense one, despite their political differences. With so many monasteries left in ruins following China’s invasion of Tibet, the book has become a valuable record of a culture now facing extinction. In 1956 he published Meeting with Japan, one of the best books written by a European on its complex and at times opaque culture.
Fosco Maraini had a lifelong passion for mountains, having started as a teenager in the Dolomites,  climbing first with the Trieste guide Emilio Comici and then unguided with friends. He published books on two expeditions, the first to the Karakoram in 1958, when Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri made the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV, and then to Chitral in 1959, to climb Saraghar, a story told in Where Four Worlds Meet. (There is a wonderful essay in the album of photograph I mentioned by Nick Clinch, who met Maraini in Pakistan in 1958. 'He has the soul of a mountaineer,' Clinch concludes.)
The Hindu Kush book in particular is full of the richness of mountain culture, its mystery and excitement, the sense you are touching on things ancient and mostly forgotten, things of great value and significance. It’s a treasure house of wisdom and lore. He stretches easily, in the book’s concluding paragraphs, from the origins of Vedic religion to Ancient Rome and beyond to the world of Dante, could see the endless human flow of change that made a mockery of what he called ‘the rhetorical dead weight of Fascism.’
He told Dacia: ‘remember always that races do not exist. Only cultures exist.’
I wonder what he would make of the recent terrorist attack at Nanga Parbat base camp. At Dir, on his way to Chitral, he wrote approvingly of how the women went unveiled and the men weren’t armed. Having travelled through Dir a few years ago on my own way to Chitral, Fosco would be depressed at the change. But then again, perhaps he would be impressed that the Kalash, who he wrote about, had clung on, and fought for their rights against overwhelming odds. The wheel turns.
‘He was forever on his travels,’ Dacia wrote, ‘forever far away. Whenever he came back from one of his journeys I took meticulous note of the smells he brought back with him, the smell of apples, of dirty washing, or hair warmed by the sun, or crumpled books, dry bread, old shoes, withered flowers, tobacco, and tiger balsam against rheumatism. It was the smell of a solitary man, impatient of all ties, of all responsibilities, who travelled ceaselessly from one continent to another; a pilgrim with Spartan tastes, used to sleeping on the ground, to living on almost nothing, abstemious and sober but capable of much eating and drinking if he were in good company on the top of a mountain or in an abandoned bathing-hut among the rocks beside the sea.’


Posted by Ed Douglas at 1.22 PM