Fosco Maraini

Writer and traveller who photographed 'secret Tibet'

Monday 10 October 2011 07:17

At the end of the Pacific War, in August 1945, the gates of Japan's camps were opened. In the city of Nagoya, among the released internees was an Italian family. They were Fosco Maraini, the writer, photographer, mountaineer and ethnographer, his wife Topazia and their three small daughters.

Fosco Maraini, writer, photographer, mountaineer, traveller and ethnologist: born Florence, Italy 11 November 1912; Reader in Italian, University of Kyoto 1941-43; Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford 1959-64; married 1935 Topazia Alliata (two daughters, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved), 1970 Mieko Namiki; died Florence 8 June 2004.

At the end of the Pacific War, in August 1945, the gates of Japan's camps were opened. In the city of Nagoya, among the released internees was an Italian family. They were Fosco Maraini, the writer, photographer, mountaineer and ethnographer, his wife Topazia and their three small daughters.

At the time of his incarceration Maraini was a Reader in Italian at the University of Kyoto. He went on to write a number of distinguished books on his travels in Asia, including Meeting With Japan and Secret Tibet, and on his mountain expeditions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In later life he was a lecturer in Japanese at the University of Florence, the city of his birth.

Born to an Italian artist father and an English mother, the writer Yoi Crosse, from an early age Fosco was an enthusiastic skier and mountain climber, and he made his first big ascents with the great Emilio Comici. He was also fascinated by the art of photography. In 1930, when he was only 18, he successfully showed his experimental black-and-white photographs in Rome at the exhibition " Mostra Nazionale di Fotografia Futurista".

Another of Maraini's passions was Oriental culture and in 1934, he embarked as a teacher of English on the cadet ship Amerigo Vespucci, visiting Greece, the Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. The following year he married Topazia Alliata, a member of an old Sicilian family. In 1937, he accompanied the Orientalist Giuseppe Tucci as official photographer on an expedition to Tibet. Tucci was a supporter of Mussolini, and a close friend of the Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile. Maraini's stance was resolutely anti-Fascist.

On his return to Italy (after brief visits to Japan and Korea) Maraini decided to dedicate his life to Oriental ethnology. He took his final examinations in Natural Sciences at the University of Florence, and in 1939, with a grant from the Japanese government, travelled to Sapporo in Hokkaido to study the tribal traditions and arts of the Ainu people, then on the verge of extinction. He was also attracted to the art of ukiyoe or wood-block prints, especially those made by Hokusai (1760-1849), a master of evocative perspectives whose art influenced Maraini's own work with a camera.

When the Pacific War broke out, Tucci was sent by Mussolini to found the Italian Cultural Institute in Tokyo and travelled all over Japan giving lectures on Tibet and on "racial purity". Maraini was appointed Reader in Italian at the University of Kyoto in 1941, but his own political opinions were directly opposed to those of Tucci, the German Fascists and their Japanese imitators. In 1943, when he refused to give his support to Mussolini's last stance, Maraini and his family were incarcerated at Nagoya as "civil internees". They remained there until 15 August 1945.

Towards the end of their enforced stay in the prison, Maraini made the rather operatic gesture of chopping off his little finger in the highly dramatic style of yakuza (gangster) movies, where the gesture symbolises deep apology to the boss as well as undying loyalty to him. If Maraini was expecting to impress the guards he was under a delusion. It had no effect at all, for such a traditional "honour" self-sacrifice is valid only when performed by a Japanese in atonement for errors.

Maraini returned to Italy, where his photography took on a new depth as he portrayed with total realism the agonies of post-war life, adopting the grand verismo style of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti. From 1948 to 1950 he made an extraordinary documentary film on southern Italy, Nostro Sud, which even today is in large part unedited.

In 1948, Maraini participated in Tucci's second Tibet expedition. His experiences and photographs were collected in his first book, Segreto Tibet (1951) which was translated into English as Secret Tibet the following year. In the mid-1950s he spent a further year in Japan, collecting materials for future works. He was a Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford from 1959 to 1964, and made many voyages across Asia - to India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan and Korea.

His best book, Meeting With Japan, was published in 1959 (the original Italian version, Ore Giapponesi, had appeared two years earlier) when I read it during my first year as Professor of English at Tohoku University in Sendai. Its construction considerably influenced my own early books about Japan.

During the rest of his very full life he was loaded with honours in both Italy and Japan. In 1999, his slightly fictionalised autobiography, Case, Amori, Universi ("Houses, Loves, Universes"), was published. His photographic collection of over 25,000 images and his library of books on the Orient have been acquired by the city of Florence for the Centro Vieusseux-Asia.

Dacia Maraini, one of his daughters, became a celebrated Italian playwright and novelist. She recalled this saying of her father, which he told her as a child, "Remember always that races do not exist. Only cultures exist" - words that encapsulate Maraini's whole philosophy of life.

James Kirkup

Earlier this year I received a card from Florence with kind words from Fosco Maraini on my becoming editor of the Alpine Journal, writes Stephen Goodwin. He pointed out that he had at his house a full run of AJs, the oldest mountaineering journal in the world, from 1863, plus its two forerunner issues of Peaks, Passes and Glaciers - a rare and valuable collection indeed.

Maraini was an alpinist in the classic European gentlemanly mould, urbane and witty, the mountains a different venue for social engagement and intellectual inquiry as well as fun and physical challenge. He certainly wasn't one of the obsessional "hard men" of climbing, though his list of ascents in the Dolomites and the western Alps from 1929 to 1937 is impressive. He was elected to the Alpine Club in 1960 and remained a member to his death.

While most of his climbs were done guideless, he made several excursions onto the spires of the Dolomites with the Trieste ace Emilio Comici, notably two ascents of the Dülfer route (V+) on the Cima Grande di Lavaredo and the committing Preuss Crack (V) on the Cima Piccolissima. Maraini kept fine company. Against one climb on the Torre del Diavolo, on his record is written: "with E Comici and King of Belgium".

This phase of activity came to an end when he travelled East; to Tibet in 1937 and then to Japan. While in Japan, he climbed Mount Fuji and made several ski ascents of peaks in Hokkaido.

In 1958, Maraini's knowledge of Asia and facility with languages made him a useful member of the successful Italian expedition, led by Riccardo Cassin, to Gasherbrum IV (7,925m), the "Matterhorn of the Baltoro glacier" in Pakistan. Maraini secured the all-important peak permit in Karachi, and later reached 7,200m on the formidable mountain.

A year later he led a team from the Rome section of the Italian Alpine Club to Saraghrar Peak in the Hindu Kush, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Four climbers gained the 7,367m summit. Looking back on this trip he delighted in the contrast between the mountaineers' enjoyment of "the ruder pleasures of nature" and a sophisticated Rome where "the last descendants of feudal lords mingle with monsignori and abbots", coupled with the "rather scandalous aura" of politics and cinema stars.

Maraini recorded these adventures in Gasherbrum (1960, translated as Karakoram: the ascent of Gasherbrum IV, 1961) and Paropàmiso (1963, Where Four Worlds Meet: Hindu Kush 1959, 1964), accompanied by superb photographs. But his most enduring work is Secret Tibet. The book is by turns intimate and scholarly as Maraini and Giuseppe Tucci ("the great master") visited villages and monasteries on a route from Sikkim to Lhasa.

Maraini couldn't know it at the time, but many of the statues and wall paintings he photographed with his Leica and described so elegantly, would be destroyed in Mao's Cultural Revolution - a term he regarded as horribly ironic, describing 1966 to 1977 as "those years of fire and shit". The photographs in Secret Tibet became the only record of the treasures of places like the 1,000-year old Kyangphu monastery, reduced to rubble.

Four years ago, a new edition of Secret Tibet was published (the Italian version appeared in 1998), augmented with fresh reflections by Maraini on his travels, Buddhism and the future of Tibet. When he recalled Kyangphu, he did so, he said, "with tears in my eyes".

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