Colin Thubron Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Colin Thubron 1939-

(Full name Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron) English travel writer and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Thubron's career through 2002.

A veteran world traveler, Thubron is a versatile writer who has won international acclaim for both his travel writing and novels. His works are commended for their portrayal of the changes and contradictions caused by the passage of time, displaying Thubron's keen sense of history and place. Thubron maintains a careful distance in his travel writing, revealing little about himself while fully describing the places he visits and the people he meets. The accounts of his travels through Russia and China are regarded by many critics as some of the most comprehensive portraits of those countries in contemporary literature. Thubron's novels display several of the qualities found his travel writing, including vivid descriptions and acute attention to cultural details.

Biographical Information

Thubron was born in London on June 14, 1939, to Gerald Ernest Thubron, an army brigadier, and Evelyn Dryden Thubron, a descendant of the seventeenth-century poet John Dryden. Though his father was a military attaché who was stationed in Canada and the United States, Thubron attended boarding schools in England and studied at Eton College from 1953 to 1957. In 1959 he joined the editorial staff of the publishing firm Hutchinson and Company. Thubron left Hutchinson in 1962, and began to travel around the world, photographing several freelance television documentaries on Turkey, Morocco, and Japan for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). From 1964 to 1965, he worked on the editorial staff of the Macmillan Company of New York. In 1965 he began working as a freelance writer. His first full-length work, Mirror to Damascus (1967), details his experiences living in the city of Damascus in the fall and winter of 1965. Thubron's work has received a number of awards, including the PEN Silver Award for A Cruel Madness (1984) and the Thomas Cook Prize and the Hawthornden Prize for Behind the Wall: A Journey through China (1987). Additionally, Thubron's Turning Back the Sun (1991) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991 and To the Last City (2002) was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002.

Major Works

Thubron is best known for his series of travelogues based on his experiences in Russia, China, Central Asia, and various other locales. Journey into Cyprus (1975) follows Thubron on a six-hundred-mile walking tour that takes him end-to-end and back and forth across the island of Cyprus, crossing and recrossing the boundaries between the warring Greek and Turkish areas. Most of his journey is through meadows and along barely discernible paths in areas frequented only by shepherds and farmers. At night, he sleeps in a variety of locations, including a medical clinic, a monastery, and a pigsty. One of Thubron's most acclaimed works, Among the Russians (1983), focuses on Thubron's ten-thousand-mile automobile journey across the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). This book describes travels undertaken during the height of the Cold War between the West and Communist Russia. Thubron details how difficult it was to travel freely throughout the country and how he was often trailed by KGB government agents. He offers portraits of a variety of Russian citizens and is openly critical of Russia's rate of alcoholism, state-sponsored oppression, and devotion to Communism. In Behind the Wall, Thubron ventures into another Communist country, China—this time travelling by train, bus, and plane. Thubron learns Mandarin Chinese in an attempt to fit in during his travels, but despite his best efforts, he still requires a translator to communicate with local Chinese citizens. Thubron finds himself standing out as an obvious foreigner and is confronted with many Chinese stereotypes about the West. Thubron returns his attention to China with The Silk Road: Beyond the Celestial Kingdom (1989), where he recounts his journey along the ancient trade route west from Xinjiang (formerly known as Sinkiang) in western China into East Turkistan and on to the fabled cities of Samarqand and Bukhara in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (today Uzbekistan). After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Thubron wrote The Lost Heart of Asia (1994), which follows his voyages though Central Asia, tracing the area's relationship with China, India, and Europe throughout history. In Siberia (1999), one of Thubron's most ambitious projects, explores the vast and barren Siberian countryside. Thubron describes the stark contrasts between the country's pristine wilderness areas and their heavily-polluted industrial zones while offering portraits of several isolated Siberian communities.

Although he is primarily known as a travel writer, Thubron has also written several novels. A Cruel Madness is narrated by Daniel Pashley, a schoolteacher who volunteers to teach the inmates at a local psychiatric hospital on weekends. Daniel discovers that his former lover, Sophia, is a patient at the asylum and he begins to reminisce about their affair. It eventually becomes clear that Daniel is actually a patient at the asylum and that his memories of Sophia may be delusions. Falling (1989) centers on a prisoner named Mark Swabey who is serving an one-year sentence for manslaughter. Mark falls in love with two women—Katherine, a stained-glass artist, and Clara, a high-wire circus performer who works without a net. Mark eventually leaves Katherine, only to have Clara suffer a debilitating accident during her act. Mark gives Clara a lethal dose of medicine to help end her suffering and is apprehended by the police. Turning Back the Sun is set in an unnamed colonial country in the 1930s. The protagonist, Dr. Rayner, has been exiled to a frontier outpost after failing his medical examinations. Nostalgic for his sophisticated boyhood home, Rayner has to deal with a mysterious rash that is turning the white colonists' skin as dark as that of the natives. The colonists blame the natives for their affliction, a drought frays tempers even further, and a massacre of the natives is narrowly averted. Distance (1996) focuses on Edward Sanders, a young astronomer studying black holes. When he loses his memory, he must piece together the last fourteen months of his life, including the trauma which precipitated his amnesia. In 2002 Thubron published To the Last City, a fictional account of five travellers journeying through the Peruvian Andes in search of the lost city of Vilcabamba.

Critical Reception

Reviewers have consistently praised Thubron's travel writing, noting how he deeply immerses himself into foreign countries and have lauded the numerous cultural insights found in his travelogues. Philip Marsden has stated that, “Of all his generation of travel writers (Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban and Bruce Chatwin), Thubron is the one who manages best to get beneath the skin of his subjects.” Thubron's sense of humor and stark honesty in his descriptive passages has also been applauded by critics. Many commentators have appreciated Thubron's mixture of personal and historical references in his travel writing, though some reviewers have argued that this blend of the objective and subjective has contributed to a number of factual inaccuracies in Thubron's works. In terms of his writing style, critics have drawn attention to the lyrical quality of his prose. Guy Mannes-Abbott has stated that, “[Thubron's] writing is intelligent, reflective and evinces a quietly singular style.” Thubron's novels have not received the same critical attention as his travel writing, with some critics charging that Thubron's fictional works are not nearly as engaging or fully realized as his nonfiction works. Though some reviewers have commended his use of symbolism and historical detail in his novels, others have complained that Thubron's characterizations and plotlines are weak and ill-conceived.