Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701
SOURCE: Semenova, Olga. “Top to Bottom.” New Statesman 106, no. 2744 (21 October 1983): 23.
[In the following review, Semenova examines what Among the Russians and Roy Medvedev's All Stalin's Men reveal about contemporary Russian society.]
[Roy Medvedev and Colin Thubron] create a picture of Soviet society by...
(The entire section contains 30513 words.)
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SOURCE: Semenova, Olga. “Top to Bottom.” New Statesman 106, no. 2744 (21 October 1983): 23.
[In the following review, Semenova examines what Among the Russians and Roy Medvedev's All Stalin's Men reveal about contemporary Russian society.]
[Roy Medvedev and Colin Thubron] create a picture of Soviet society by examining some of the individuals who compose it. But they look at this society from opposite ends. The sharp contrast between these two accounts illustrates one of the more serious problems now facing the Soviet leadership.
In All Stalin's Men, Roy Medvedev describes the careers of six of those who rose to prominence in Stalin's shadow and remained in power on his death: Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Suslov, Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov. Medvedev's unique position as a ‘dissident’ still tolerated by Moscow has enabled him to gather material which brings these grey figures to life; the modest Voroshilov, a brave partisan leader but incompetent general; the dashing and superbly efficient Mikoyan, organiser of supplies during World War II; the grim and cautious Suslov, a ‘Chief Ideologist’ who ‘made not one original remark’; Molotov, ‘Stoney-Arse,’ a cold and competent bureaucrat, who carried out all Stalin's orders without hesitation (including that to send his own wife to labour camp), the ruthless and brutal Kaganovich, responsible for the collectivisation of the Ukraine; and the mediocre Malenkov, Stalin's unsuccessful ‘heir.’ These men were distinguished not by any outstanding talent, but by their willingness to put aside moral scruples for the sake of political advancement, by their ability to survive and their extraordinary longevity (three of them, Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov, can still be found wandering around Moscow).
Unfortunately, though Medvedev's descriptions are vivid, they are also crude. He still has hopes of the democratisation of the Soviet regime from above. This leads him to adopt a ‘bad men’ theory of history, condemning Stalin and the men who participated in his ‘crimes,’ rather than the system which gave rise to them. He is careful to concentrate his criticisms on men who are out of favour, or dead.
In contrast, Among the Russians relates Colin Thubron's attempt to ‘listen to people of all ages, occupations and interests.’ It is compiled from the notebooks of his extraordinary 10,000 mile journey across the Soviet Union in an old Morris Marina—from Leningrad and the Baltic, to Moscow and central Russia, the Ukraine and Kiev, the Caucasus and Armenia. The result is a beautiful, poetic work, which captures much of the spirit of Russia.
Colin Thubron conveys the feel of places and their past with wonderful intensity, the golden domes of medieval Moscow, the desolate plains of Belorussia, the ‘cold luminous skies’ of Leningrad and the ‘dynamic disorder’ of Georgia. At the same time, he portrays the ugliness and emptiness of modern Russian life, with its tawdry tower blocks, interminable queues and tension, radiating outwards from the Kremlin. He catches the sense of spiritual desolation which possesses many, especially of the younger generation of Russians. With the exception of the odd devotee or dissident, the Russians Thubron meets don't believe in anything else. Their dissatisfaction is general, but apathetic. It manifests itself in a petty passion for acquisition, in gestures of ‘safe’ dissidence (such as going to Church), in loose sex and, above all, in vodka.
Colin Thubron conveys this mood and describes Russia without wholly understanding it. He is an outsider who strays alone across the country and stays nowhere long enough to penetrate beneath the surface of things. He is naively surprised when the KGB become interested in him, grows paranoid and leaves the country with obvious relief.
The contrast between the individuals portrayed in these books reflects both a gulf between rulers and subjects and a gulf between generations. The present Soviet rulers spent their formative years under Stalin. They are rigid in their orthodoxy, ruthless in preserving their power and privileges. Modern Soviet youth, on the other hand, knows nothing of the suffering or the exaltation of the Stalin era and the war years. While lacking the energy to be overtly rebellious, they feel no attachment to the regime. The result is a deep malaise in Soviet society, which will be dispelled only if the younger generation is allowed to participate in political or economic life.
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SOURCE: Maclean, Fitzroy. “The Earth Mother.” Spectator 252, no. 8139 (7 July 1984): 27.
[In the following excerpt, Maclean discusses Thubron's examination of Russian culture in Among the Russians.]
Colin Thubron's latest book, Among the Russians, can only serve to enhance his well-deserved reputation. I enjoyed every page of it. It is well observed, well written and, unlike many books about Russia, gives proof of an unusual and penetrating insight into the character of the country and people. Having long been fascinated by Russia, the author learned Russian and, climbing into his Morris Marina, set out to explore it, covering about 10,000 miles in the process. Not everyone realises that, despite the machinations of what he aptly calls ‘a jungly and unconquerable bureaucracy,’ it is perfectly possible to do this.
During his journey, Mr Thubron made a number of important discoveries, not least that the Second World War so haunts the Russian consciousness that no understanding of Russia is possible without it. He also discovered, as he motored across it, the immense size of the Russian plain, its psychological effect on the Russians and their close attachment to their country's soil. ‘From her own people,’ he writes, ‘Russia elicits a helpless worship of belonging … She contains them with the elemental despotism of an earth mother.’ With this he rightly links the average Russian's almost mystical sense of patriotism, now coming (and being brought) increasingly to the fore. ‘The old Russian belief in an apocalyptic history continues: history with a divine purpose,’ a persistent belief, in other words, in Russia's God- or Marx-given mission to enlighten and, if necessary, discipline a naughty world. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations,’ wrote Karl Marx, ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’ Of few countries, as Marx would have been the first to agree, is this truer than of Russia.
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SOURCE: Dirlam, Sharon. Review of A Cruel Madness, by Colin Thubron. Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 October 1985): 22.
[In the following review, Dirlam offers a positive assessment of A Cruel Madness, praising the novel as “gripping tale of passion.”]
[In A Cruel Madness,] the calm voice of a rational man tells the story of his quiet life with all the drama of dry sticks rubbing together, rubbing, rubbing, until there's spark, a trail of smoke, a flicker, and the next thing you know you are surrounded by the fire of his passionate obsession. There are clues along the way that the story will slip from normalcy, the “spasms of recognition” of a man who sees his beloved 10 years after their brief affair, the “absurd desolation” he feels when she slips away again. Thubron has a gift for description (as one would expect of an award-winning travel writer): “Every wall of the hospital is lacerated with fire escapes,” or, “In early morning, when the mist steals off the hills, and round the hospital, you might imagine the whole institution underwater and its giant trees turned to seaweeds.” The narrator seems to be telling you the facts, but you slowly realize that all may not be as it seems to him. Sophia, his lover, may be a patient in the Welsh lunatic asylum where much of the tale unfolds. The narrator, Daniel, may be a volunteer worker there, as he says. Thubron stirs the muddy waters of passion to the point where reality and delusion are but different sides of the same occurrence, where reason and paranoia coexist. And the underwater imagery gives poetic voice to the dissolution of Daniel's world. This isn't just another novel about madness and despair. It is a gripping tale of passion, however misspent, and the failure of an entire set of characters to come to grips with life seems not as distant from “normal” as one might think, but simply a look deeper into the mind than most of us dare to probe. Thubron is incurably curious, in his investigations of human depths as well as in his travels around the world, and the results are spellbinding.
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SOURCE: Pool, Gail. Review of Where Nights Are Longest, by Colin Thubron. Christian Science Monitor 79, no. 199 (8 September 1987): 21-2
[In the following excerpt, Pool notes that Where Nights Are Longest does not present a flattering portrait of the Soviet Union.]
“Nobody from the West enters the Soviet Union without prejudice,” says Colin Thubron at the start of Where Nights Are Longest. “But I think I wanted to know and embrace this enemy I had inherited.”
To a large degree, Thubron's journey through Russia is an exploration of attitudes, the Soviets' and his own. It would be nice to report that he discovered that his negative bias was without foundation. But this was not the case. Indeed, neither his book nor Peregrine Hodson's account of a journey through Soviet-occupied Afghanistan—two outstanding entries in the new Atlantic Monthly Traveler series—is likely to endear Soviet power to Western readers.
Thubron set off in the summer of 1980, traveling by car and staying mainly at campsites. His route took in Moscow, Leningrad, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, regions on the Turkish border and the Ukraine—in all, some 10,000 miles through a land whose vastness never ceased to impress him: “Wherever you touch it, you are conscious of a giant, alienating hinterland. You are always, somehow, on the periphery.”
The very format of Thubron's trip posed a challenge to Russian tourism, which favors delegations (“Are you a group?” he was asked repeatedly at campsites) and supervised sightseeing. His journey was solitary, individualistic.
Individualism—and its political counterpart freedom—form the book's recurring theme. Not that Thubron omits description: He depicts countryside, architecture. people in beautiful prose made precise by close observation and deepened by a knowledge of Russia.
But if he is looking at everything, he is also looking for something, always moving beyond description to penetrate the texture of Russian life and compare it with his own “world of private love and choice which communism sought to supersede.”
From this perspective, Thubron describes how Russia enshrines its authors in the writer's museum in Oryol, but also how in Oryol it is “hard to find the works of Mandelshtam, let alone of Solzhenitsyn.” He describes the churches, but also how the government has closed them in an effort to make communism the new religion—with scripture, prophets, and Lenin as saint, his mausoleum “the Holy Sepulchre of atheism.”
In a telling scene, he describes some girls in a “Park of Rest and Culture” engaged in a drawing competition. Their pictures, on the subject of peace, were, he says, “heartbreakingly similar. …” The girls “had drawn nothing truly their own. …” Gazing at the “taught phrases and symbols,” Thubron feels “as if a whole generation were being anesthetized” before his eyes.
Clearly, Thubron's viewpoint is very Western, but his book is persuasive in its defense. Throughout Russia, he meets people who are dissatisfied with the government, with their inability to think, worship, read as they want, who drink to forget the “emptiness of their lives.”
These people are at the heart of the book, and from their warmth, spontaneity, thoughtfulness—all in evidence on these pages—Thubron learns never to equate “the Russian system with the Russian people.” His book, written before glasnost—it first appeared in England in 1983 as Among the Russians—makes one hope all the more for the thaw's success.
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SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. London Review of Books 9, no. 17 (1 October 1987): 21.
[In the following excerpt, Mantel praises Behind the Wall for its ability to portray Chinese society in a manner that makes sense to readers.]
Colin Thubron is a gifted and accomplished travel writer, whose book Among the Russians has been described as one of the best travel books written this century. To him the opening-up of China was ‘like discovering a new room in a house in which you'd lived all your life.’ He is a perceptive and honest traveller [in Behind the Wall,] aware of the burden of his own expectations, his head prone to fill with ‘savage and condescending notions’: at first it seemed that the Chinese he met were engaged in a conspiracy to fulfil every Western cliche about themselves. At an early stage, he feels intense frustration: ‘At every moment, around every corner, the question Who are they? erupts and nags.’ There is a feeling that real life is being conducted just out of his range of vision; and in the cities of China this is literally true, as the earth beneath is ‘perforated like a rotten cheese’ with a network of nuclear shelters, and in Beijing there are restaurants, libraries, hotels, hospitals, all under the ground.
He travelled, too, in a realm of ghosts, the millions who died in the incomprehensible national madness of the Cultural Revolution, which was also a realm of survivors, working and living alongside their former persecutors. What kind of people are these? ‘In one province alone seventy-five different methods of torture were instituted …’ It is the capacity for collective action, collective delusion, that disturbs him so much. In the Fifties, it was decided that the whole population must turn out to destroy the birds, which were eating too much grain. For twenty-four hours the Chinese stood in the fields, beating tin cans and blowing whistles, so that the birds, unable to alight, died of heart failure and dropped from the sky. But the old men keep singing birds in cages, and take them to the public gardens every day. The non-human world is acceptable when tamed and enslaved.
He finds the same phenomenon at the resort of Beidaihe, where the party elite take their summer vacations; the coast is ringed with safety nets, but no one can tell him why the bathers need protection. A landscape or archaeological site becomes real only when the camera comes out, only when a human presence is recorded—preferably one's own. ‘“You're travelling alone?” I was asked. “Then how do you manage to photograph?”’
Gradually the individuals separate themselves from the mass. Perhaps one of his most telling encounters—with a female student of economics, and a young man who wanted to practise his English—took place on a train. Here he performs the traveller's task of reflecting back the people he encounters to themselves: here are the impossible questions, the impossible demands. ‘I don't think I'm beautiful … am I?’ The girl's aspirations tumble out of her, savagely contradictory: ‘I hope I will use my life to serve the people and my motherland … I want to be a millionairess.’ Her face, with its minimal features, could have been sketched by an artist to portray anyone, the average Chinese. Meanwhile the young man interrupts them: ‘Excuse me, Sir, how much do the peasants get to eat in England? Excuse me, Sir, is England a gentleman's country?’
Instead of the ‘worker ants’ of his imagination, and the iron rice bowl society of the recent past, Colin Thubron finds a desolate workless population, seduced by consumerism, apolitical, believing nothing, trusting no one; but with the same veneration for office, the same ancient smugness of great men; in no way egalitarian, ‘emerging from the nightmare idealism of Mao into a more pragmatic and disillusioned world.’ He cannot find the spirits and demons of old China, but he is assured that they survive, staunch reactionaries, in remote villages. The present is as strange as any of the antics of those strangling gods who once lay in wait for travellers, and this is a book of immense interest, beautifully written, Colin Thubron, finely accumulating detail, tolerating and absorbing tensions and contradictions, makes sense of reality for his readers in a way that often only poets can. We remember the grove outside Qufu with the tomb of Confucius—an incense burner without, and cigarette butts within.
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SOURCE: Rocca, Francis X. Review of Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, by Colin Thubron. American Spectator 22, no. 1 (January 1989): 44.
[In the following excerpt, Rocca compares Behind the Wall with Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, noting the unique ways that the authors describe their journeys through China.]
Here is the first literary fruit of the new access to China: [Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux and Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron,] two first-person accounts of solitary travel on the mainland. The authors are prominent, and both divide their careers as novelists and travel writers. Paul Theroux, the more popular and more prolific, is an American. Colin Thubron is an Englishman who has won critical praise for his books on Cyprus and Western Russia. Both of them reside in England. Except for Manchuria and Tibet, where only Theroux ventures, they cover literally the same ground, but they stay worlds apart in style and temperament.
Theroux, according to his custom, goes almost exclusively by rail—even to get to China in the first place: for the first chapter, he crawls through Europe and the Soviet Union. His terrestrialism serves him well in the PRC, where the national airline's acronym, CAAC, is said to stand for “China Airlines Always Crashes” (or “Cancels”). Fortunately, the trains run on time. The train that runs the farthest, from Peking to Urumchi, is known as “The Iron Rooster” (thus his title).
Theroux writes in plain language well suited to the long haul. It is a blunt and slightly slangy style, peppered with profanity and laced with italics:
They spat all the time. They cleared their throats so loudly they could drown conversation—they could sound like a Roto-rooter or someone clearing a storm drain, or the last gallon of water leaving a Jacuzzi. With their cheeks alone they made the suctioning: hhggaarrkh! … They just dropped it and moved on. Well, it was a crowded country—you couldn't just turn aside and hock a louie without hitting someone. But after the snarkings, the mucus streaking through their passages with a smack, Chinese spitting was always something of an aimless anticlimax.
He is never “literary,” except when he alludes to his reading along the way, which ranges from Kidnapped to The Golden Lotus.
His is erudite reportage throughout. As did Thubron, he learned Mandarin and steeped himself in the history as well as the literature. The result is fact-filled but not pedantic. He recites a litany of inventions by the Chinese: gun-powder, the steam engine, the mechanical clock, etc. Then he points out that they forgot them all, and had to copy them again from the West. Today they are a nation of industrious anachronists, who are still making those steam engines; also spittoons, chamber pots, and iron plows; and they write with quill pens.
The tone is sarcastic, caustic, and querulous, which annoys as often as it amuses. Grumpiness over food, weather, and an intractable bureaucracy are understandable. Unkind caricatures, such as those of a mercenary chauffeur and his tag-along girlfriend who take Theroux on a perilous ride to Tibet, provide some needed comic relief. At other times the nastiness is gratuitous, as when Theroux joins a group of Western tourists for no apparent reason except to skewer them later in print. His smugness is never relieved by self-mockery.
Certain subjects are conspicuously neglected. Theroux has always avoided the twin taboos of polite American conversation: religion (“not my favorite subject”) and politics (“a hideous subject”). He portrays the exiled Dalai Lama sympathetically, but Theroux's sympathies are nationalistic and not spiritual. By his silence, he dismisses the oppression of religion. It is more surprising that he ignores the oppression of his own sort, writers. He equates Communist censorship with the temporary suppression, in Britain and the U.S., respectively, of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer (more than twenty-five years ago!). To him, purges of Chinese intellectuals are merely “boring political ambushes.” Although he makes the Cultural Revolution a grim leitmotif of his book, he deems it in principle not a bad idea: “the perfect shock” for a passive people, that only went too far. He trivializes it:
I thought of all the upstarts, know-it-alls, teachers, critics, and book reviewers that I would love to have seen herded onto a train to Mongolia to shovel pig shit and live in barns. But of course I would be among them. … It was an awful fate, but it was easy to imagine how the policy had come about. Everyone in his life has wished for someone he disliked to be trundled off to shovel shit—especially an uppity person who has never gotten his hands dirty. Mao carried this satisfying little fantasy to its nasty limit.
This book is not exactly an apology for Mao. Theroux's view is not uncritical, but it is absurdly sentimental in light of the facts. Theroux is offended that the Great Helmsman has been repudiated by his people so thoroughly and so soon after his death. He enumerates Mao's virtues: “I admired his military brilliance, his subtle mind, his wit and charisma, his ingenuity and toughness.” The Chinese find this sort of talk embarrassing. But Theroux has left his naiveté behind in the sixties, when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and a catechumen of the Little Red Book. No matter how charismatic Mao's image remains, it is besmirched with blood. Theroux cannot endorse him, so he subscribes to the crudest revisionist propaganda: that the senile old Chairman was manipulated by the Gang of Four and their clique of malevolent usurpers. At least, he repeats this and does not discount it. He cannot abide the scapegoating by a whole generation with blood on its hands who carried out the Cultural Revolution, and who now wish to exculpate themselves by blaming Mao. Because they will not stand another purge on that scale, even the victims comply with this pretense.
Theroux is harsh. He illustrates copiously the conformism and cowardice of the Chinese, with additional and unflattering views of their newly flourishing commercialism. He is not unfair, but he makes a hopeless and ungenerous assessment of the national character. Not that he is a chauvinist: he is an expatriate who has written an ungracious travelogue of his adopted land (The Kingdom by the Sea). He is not a bigot in the regular sense, but a promiscuous misanthrope, who travels the globe to witness the diversity of human depravity.
Where Theroux is hardbitten, Thubron is tender, though no less ambitious. He goes from the sea-coast on the east all the way to the edge of the Gobi desert, 2,000 miles west. But he does not stray north or west of the Great Wall (thus his title). Thubron arrives in a plane, but makes his rounds by train, bus, bicycle, and often on foot.
Thubron is also lyrical. Without taking false economies of language, he manages elegant concision, even in luxuriant passages, such as the description of Suzhou:
White-washed houses sealed the main streets in a skin of carved lintels and lattices, and along the canals the lanes became footpaths of mellow paving. Clay barges glided on the wind-stirred current, parting a drift of leaves and feathers, while above them verandas and fish-scale roofs glissaded and petered out in creepers. And flowers bloomed everywhere. Oleanders, yuccas, hollyhocks, canna lilies—they jostled the water-lanes and blazed in the courtyards. They grew not only by municipal decision but by private love, and had seeded themselves in the clefts of walls or under the weeping willows.
He can be inventively descriptive, as when he expresses mixed feelings by saying that his personality separated “like something improperly cooked.” The portraits are distinct and memorable. Conversations are punctuated with telling gestures. In a small masterpiece of less than two pages he quotes an army officer's shocking reminiscences. As the man speaks, Thubron watches his physiognomy transform, when he doffs his cap, puts on spectacles, or merely turns his head.
Thubron's learning complements his imagination. He imparts history and his immediate observations with the same vividness. During the visit to Suzhou—once a retirement village for the patriciate—he ignores the tourist hordes and conjures up the old city: exquisite gardens populated by the ghosts of their venerable tenants. The effect is sad and lively at once. Outside of Nanjing, he comes upon a ruined Corinthian column and traces it back through the complicated intercourse of East and West to Greek origins.
Thubron is compassionate: he shares an old widower's grief and a young man's unrequited love. He is humane: he buys an owl at a market rather than have it slaughtered as a delicacy. A sympathetic nature lends him special insight. Oddly, foreignness in itself can elicit confidence from this reserved people, as both writers discover. Moreover, Thubron's friendliness encourages actual intimacy on several occasions, when he discovers the Chinese more deeply. When he visits a Nanjing household, which is riven by peculiar political pressures and beset by universal frustrations, he gets revelations that defy pieties about the discipline and solidarity of the Chinese family.
The humor is rare but genuine, as in Thubron's reactions to the grotesque. Wax models of diseased tongues in a Peking medical school fill him with hypochondriacal anxiety about his own tongue (and likewise the reader about his). He inspects but barely picks at his meal of python and cat in a Canton restaurant, to the reader's relief. These vicarious effects are only possible because the author has the good will of his reader. Thubron ingratiates himself by humor at his own expense, as when the rescued owl fouls its own bag, to the disgust of other train passengers, who regard Thubron as a lunatic for wasting a fine meal; or when he describes his Caucasian homeliness by Han Chinese standards.
Thubron treats religion more sensitively than Theroux. Not as a believer, but with respect, he documents the slow revival of several traditions that have withstood official atheism. He watches the loving restoration of mosques, churches, and Buddhist monasteries (desecrated during the Cultural Revolution), and he is touched by a birthday party for Confucius in the Sage's hometown of Qufu.
Thubron shows the human as well as the architectural wreckage of the Cultural Revolution more dramatically than Theroux, and he lays more blame on Mao. On the magnitude of the horror he is emphatic:
Nobody was safe. Officials, doctors, teachers, scientists—all the elite of the professions and the arts, anybody tinged with privilege or the West (and millions who weren't)—were ritually humiliated, ingeniously tortured, exiled, beaten to death. … A hysterical xenophobia reigned. Cultural life was laid waste. Variety and beauty in themselves became criminal. Even pet cats and dogs were slaughtered (producing a plague of rats). Ornamental trees and flower-beds were dug up. Stamp-collecting, chess, keeping goldfish—nothing was innocent.
Nor is Thubron pleased with the aftermath. He accepts the prevailing acquisitiveness and self-interestedness, but he misses his own discredited “puritan concept of Communism.” Both he and Theroux are disillusioned, but neither admits a plain truth of the complex matter: that it was a particularly totalitarian disaster, notwithstanding its roots deep in Chinese society; that the resentment among classes could never have exploded this way, and the struggles among the rulers could never have taken such a toll on the nation, except under Communism.
Thubron agonizes over his judgments. He considers the Chinese especially cruel, to animals and each other, yet he strives to be fair. Learning of historical cannibalism, and seeing that roadside corpses are ignored except as lurid entertainment, he finds his worst prejudices confirmed. But he seeks, and naturally he discovers, kindness—and tenderness in mourning. He concludes only tentatively: “they [are] not less humane than we, merely less illusioned.”
He agrees with Theroux that millennia of obedience to one Emperor or another, and then to a Chairman, have established a tradition of evading blame and attributing it to the leader. He wonders if this “collective morality” was not excellent preparation for Marxism. Perhaps the imposition of this imported ideology did less damage to Chinese integrity than to its victims in the West. Whether this is a compliment or an insult is not obvious. Thubron is a cautious, complex moralist.
For Theroux, Tibet is the last stop, “the only place in China I eagerly entered, and enjoyed being in, and was reluctant to leave.” In fact, this is not China at all, by ethnicity or language—just by military force. He declares: “I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet and I realized that I liked wilderness much more.” This is the evolution of Theroux's aversion to other people. More than Tibet's irrepressible native culture, he enjoys its isolation, vastness, and emptiness: “It looked wonderful to me, like the last place on earth; like a polar ice cap, but emptier.”
Thubron finishes his journey at the western end of the Wall at Jiayuguan, the very end of classical China, once called the Mouth of China, from which exiles were traditionally spat into oblivion. Outside it lies the “chaotic barrenness” of the Gobi desert. It is the end of a day at the beginning of winter. Thubron stands there in solitude, overlooking an abyss.
At the ends of their respective journeys, Theroux is ecstatic, Thubron enervated. Yet they have both arrived at nihilistic conclusions. They have come to the middle of nowhere, which is perhaps what they were looking for all along.
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SOURCE: Fairbank, John K. “Keeping Up with the New China.” New York Review of Books 36, no. 4 (16 March 1989): 17-20.
[In the following excerpt, Fairbank discusses Thubron's first-person account of his travels through China in Behind the Wall.]
Another approach to China's current transformation is to go and poke about in it, registering one's personal impressions. First-person travel accounts, naturally limited in scope, give us what truth the writer can offer. David Kidd's sometimes charming reminiscences [in Peking Story] recall the Peking so loved by foreign aesthetes before Mao destroyed it. Kidd, age twenty, taught English and studied art in Peking universities between 1946 and 1950, fascinated by the remnants of the old China. Foreigners were still privileged people and as a young man of artistic interests and cultural sensitivity, he was able to get the use of a room at the back gate of the Summer Palace complex, where the Empress Dowager had held sway forty years before.
After 1949 Peking for the moment continued to be a remarkably open society for foreign residents. The communist ideology was just beginning to take hold. Peking Story is romantic. A daughter named Aimee of the once great Yu family picks up David Kidd at the theater, brings him into the ancestral household, and marries him. Sure enough, they escape to America in 1950 and amicably separate as she goes into physics and he takes up the study of Japanese art. Meanwhile Kidd's insider's vignettes of life with Aimee's old aunts and siblings in the old family mansion as it tumbles down are poignantly amusing. When he returns to Peking in 1981 he finds the family survivors living in poverty, still with some sense of dignity. Most of the book first appeared in The New Yorker.
Colin Thubron, a travel writer remarkably skilled at his trade, approaches China very differently [in Behind the Wall.] As a young man in the 1960s he wrote about travels and monuments in and about Damascus and Lebanon as well as Jerusalem and Cyprus. But his main preparation for China was a trip of several months driving alone over the main Russian highway system from one official campsite to another, all ticketed and approved in advance by the KGB. He talked to people in Russian and met a great variety of Soviet characters, described in his prize-winning Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car through Western Russia.
Thubron's trip through China, his second, was briefer in time and thinner in the number of contacts. But he was adept at mingling with the local people, traveling fourth class on trains and steerage on boats, eating the local food, trying to think the local thoughts. In this he was aided by having studied Mandarin intensively, so that his spoken Chinese, although it sometimes led him to ask questions whose answers he could not understand, nevertheless indicated his sincerity and allowed him to talk to Chinese whom few other Westerners would have met.
In late 1985, age forty-six, he crisscrosses the country to see special historic sites and push beyond the usual tourist limits. Thus he goes to the place where the Great Wall meets the sea and tramps west on it for several hours. In Shandong province after watching a fine ceremony in honor of Confucius at the refurbished Temple of Confucius at Qufu, he visits the deserted Kung family cemetery and finds Confucius' tomb. Some anti-Confucian enthusiast, however, seems to mislead him, for he writes:
Here are still cave tombs more than two thousand years old in which people who survived beyond the age of sixty used to be buried alive. Sometimes their children went on feeding them by lowering bamboo baskets of food and drink into their graves, sometimes not.
This nonsense is one of the few cases in which Thubron's common sense seems to lose out.
Mature in years, friendly and self-confident, Thubron picks up people to talk to as he goes along, sometimes patching together his Chinese and their English to discuss real questions. His informants are mainly intellectuals of some sort and the shame and cruelty of the Cultural Revolution keep turning up in their case histories. The bankruptcy of Maoism seems all too complete. When Thubron visits Mao's birthplace, which used to be a Mecca packed with pilgrims, he finds it almost deserted. In the old farmhouse at Shaoshan the caretaker lets him stay in Mao's own room and in fact sleep in Mao's own bed! (He slept poorly.) When he persists in making a similar pilgrimage to Yenan, another ex-Mecca, he is scoffed at. The Yenan Hotel seems like a morgue and the museum exhibits are in decay.
Thubron finds Shanghai “drowned in the ocean of its populace.” He visits the “infamous riverside park” where the notorious sign reading “No dogs or Chinese” is now given the precise date of 1885, a claim deserving further research. From Shanghai he goes by rail to Xiamen (Amoy) and thence by sea in steerage class to Canton. Everywhere he tries to penetrate the ordinary life of the people in the street who are of course less concerned with him than he with them. He takes the reader to historic sites and into beautiful scenery of lakes and mountains. After sailing on the Li River at Guilin he goes ashore for a two-days' ramble among the mountains and villages. In other places he hires a bicycle for his solitary explorations. The new railway line from Kunming in the southwest to Chengdu in Sichuan province takes him through 427 tunnels and over 653 bridges in the course of a seven-hundred-mile ride. (The line was built during the Cultural Revolution.) From Chungking he goes down the Yangtze Gorges in a five-deck steamer named “The East is Red No. 24.” Finally he goes into the northwest to see the Blue Lake (Koko Nor) and the Buddhist monastery nearby, and last of all reaches the western extremity of the Great Wall at the Jade Gate in a blinding cold wind.
Thubron naturally runs into people predisposed toward him by their hopes or earlier connections. One bricklayer, for instance, says his father was a Cambridge University graduate. Someone new always turns up, and a reader's overall impression is kaleidoscopic—salesmen are enterprising, consumers and people in business complain of corruption, intellectuals feel frustrated, and some patriots are ashamed of Mao. Unlike journalists assigned to cover the power holders, Thubron the traveler meets mainly little people as he sleeps next to farmers on the floor of a train or runs into a student in a tea shop.
Always the great enigma is the Cultural Revolution. How could the Chinese have been so cruel, so inhumane? How could so many hundreds of thousands of people have been beaten, jailed, forced to do exhausting labor in the countryside? Nobody ventures the explanation that when the sanctions of social order and propriety are removed, in a society so accustomed to conformity as the Chinese, a peasant people can be very destructive of the upper class and its culture. This deserves a moment's attention. Many Chinese were functionally literate under the empire, but the degree holders and officials of the upper class were set apart by their classical learning, and moreover they had been recruited early on by the state and served as the enforcers of Confucianism. Once modern learning had undermined the Confucian teaching, the Maoist revolution could be mounted against it and so the glue was melted out of the old society. The latent anti-intellectualism of the preponderant lower class could quickly be combined with the xenophobia that is natural in the heartland of an enormous country.
With a touch of anarchist egalitarianism the Maoist Red Guards could undertake the destruction of things foreign and things intellectual. The secret was that the Chinese people had always accepted the ruler's authority (if not, a prudent ruler would kill them) and when Mao provided the sanction, destruction could go forward. The Red Guards, to be sure, were students, not peasants, but Mao fostered peasant standards, belittled learning, spurned foreign things, and gave the peasant an entrance into politics. Cruelty is inescapable in the life of poor peasants—witness the peasant wife who gives birth to a daughter her family cannot afford and has to drown it. Against the background of China's long history, the Cultural Revolution's cruelty is perhaps less strange.
Nevertheless it hit upper-class intellectuals with particular force. For one thing under the empire the degree-holding literati were a privileged elite exempt from corporal punishment. Their degradation by the modern psychological and physical barbarities of the police state has been a new thing and a special shock, seeming evidence of a Chinese pathology, at the least a national shame. Mao had turned the tables on them.
The Legalist methods of imperial Confucianism had trained Chinese to inform on family, friends, and neighbors. This prolonged training gave the cowed and passive citizen of modern China a special Chinese taint, an inbred complicity in authoritarian injustice. It is a disgraceful blemish on the national image. Other peoples may have comparable failings today, but they are not comparable to the exemplary, once-superior elite of China. Americans may face their special dilemma, how to sustain freedom without succumbing to greed. But Chinese have a multiheaded dilemma that keeps cropping up everywhere—how to reconcile China's current failings with its superior inheritance.
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SOURCE: Bien, Gloria. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. America 160, no. 12 (1 April 1989): 300.
[In the following excerpt, Bien offers a positive assessment of Behind the Wall, praising its humor and poetic prose.]
Colin Thubron's Behind the Wall presents a personal meeting of China and the West through his own experience. Born in London, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, author of two novels and several travel books, Thubron learned Mandarin before beginning his solitary journey through China. Carrying only a rucksack and traveling by train, bus and plane, in autumn and early winter 1985, he encountered and conversed with a great variety of people. Their confidences are often remarkably similar to those found in the works already discussed, though Thubron acknowledges himself to be a “foreign devil,” “obscenely tall” (six-feet tall), with an “anteater nose.” After months of sleeping on trains, in fields and in rat-infested hotels reserved for native Chinese, of eating meager meals of fruit, biscuits and occasionally “bones with bits of indecipherable meat,” of being bombarded with questions (“Are you American? “How much do you make?” “How much does that cost?”), and of being stared at by growing crowds for hours on end, Thubron describes a sense of fatigue that he calls “attrition.” His reader can only shudder in sympathy and wonder why he is going through all this.
But his adventures are prodigious. They include a festival celebrating a new statue of Confucius in Qufu, sleeping in Mao's bed in Shaoshan, a 40-mile climb to Mount Emei's 6,000-foot summit, an exhausting search for the grave of his favorite poet Li Bai (Li Po) to find that it contained only his cap and clothes. In addition to random encounters, there are people he had met before on an earlier, briefer trip, as well as others introduced by friends. A map at the beginning traces his route from coastal cities to the borders of Burma and Mongolia. For many of the places he visits, he gives a historical background that is at once succinct, informative, meditative and reflective. Much of the work is poetic; all is full of life and humor. Often his expectations are dashed by harsh reality; the Cultural Revolution seems to have reached everywhere, leaving monuments abandoned, artifacts destroyed or restored and overrun with hordes of Chinese tourists taking pictures of each other, paying scant attention to the views. While his book would hardly encourage one to follow in his footsteps, Thubron is an ideal armchair travel companion, even as he tells lies to discourage Chinese would-be travel partners. Behind the Wall won England's Thomas Cook Prize for the best travel book of the year (1987).
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SOURCE: Gernant, Karen. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. Journal of Asian Studies 48, no. 2 (May 1989): 377-79.
[In the following review, Gernant argues that Behind the Wall does a better job of furthering the Westerner's understanding of China than Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster.]
Both [Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron and Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux] are accounts of relatively short journeys in China and are meant for general readers. Colin Thubron's book is an authentic, balanced depiction of China—and of an outsider's struggle to understand. He brings to his journey a probing but sensitive curiosity, as well as stereotypes about Chinese inscrutability. His quest for understanding gives the lie to these latter images. At the start, China is a “luminous puzzle” (p. 2) holding “a billion uncomprehended people” (p. 3) who are “opaque” and “inhibited” (p. 7). But such references recede to be largely replaced by genuine regard for individuals representing diverse views, occupations, and dreams. Training his lens squarely on China and the Chinese, Thubron presents crisp portraits.
By contrast Paul Theroux plods. He rarely seems as engaged as Thubron. His style is less compelling, with vague words (“pretty,” “weird”) cluttering his writing. “Any travel book,” writes Theroux, “revealed more about the traveler than it did about the country” (p. 417). His does; Thubron's doesn't. We learn that Theroux reads voraciously, expects to be known, loathes surrendering his bedding early in the morning, and detests cigarette smoke.
Theroux often remains on the sidelines. Whereas Thubron plunges into a public bath, Theroux only observes it. While Thubron buys and frees an owl, Theroux—inspired by an identical impulse—returns with his money too late for the owl and settles for doves instead. Principles keep Theroux from a church service, but Thubron attends one, leading later to a troubling dialogue with a priest. Of a female professor Theroux writes, “She too wanted to go to the United States—to study, and for a change of pace” (p. 183). By contrast, Thubron captures the palpable eagerness of a college student yearning to study early medieval European sculpture at an American University: “‘Have you seen those places? Vézelay? Aachen?’ … When we veered into discussing other things the light drained from her voice. She simply lost interest, and suddenly broke in with: ‘Have you seen Autun? … Toulouse?’” (p. 74).
In teaching a few night school sessions, Theroux asked whether the students “agreed with everything their government did. They said no … but didn't elaborate.” He laments: “It is always difficult for a writer to make virtuous people interesting” (p. 103).
Yet Thubron repeatedly surmounts that difficulty. A schoolgirl expresses irreverence for school uniform and food, for propaganda and teachers. Her laughter fading into pity for preserved chickens, she blunts a stereotype: “I realised that I was still steeped in a conventional anxiety about Chinese cruelty, and that … I had unconsciously waited for some expression of tenderness, of empathy with pain. And now here it was, absurdly, expressed for bottled birds” (p. 95). An official remembers his American adoptive mother teaching him never to be cruel. “‘You know, we Chinese can be cruel. Crueller than you.’ I had hoped not to hear this: not so simply, so completely” (p. 237). A sacristan recalls Red Guards from the music conservatory breaking the church organ and violin, closing the church. “What I don't understand … is that nothing inside those young people told them they were doing wrong” (p. 149).
Others confide their views of communism to Thubron. Proud of party membership, a young clerk charges: “‘There's a danger of our forgetting ideology altogether … Our country needs the Party. Make sure you say that’” (pp. 12-13). A twenty-seven-year-old, frustrated and angry with his remote posting, compares South and North Korea, West and East Germany: “‘I think this whole system is useless. … A few of us may be better off, but most are wretched. And we're meant to be grateful!’” (pp. 292-94). At the Beijing zoo, a young father recalls Cultural Revolution times: peasants selling child brides, peasants drowning baby girls. Juxtaposed: his daughter's hand in his. In Canton, a woman asserts: “‘Some husbands still beat their wives.’” In Thubron's next paragraph: “An old man wheels his wife through the Cultural Park at dusk, and installs her beneath a copse. … Gently, … he helps her from the wheelchair, and for five minutes she remains … staring up at a persimmon tree. … Then, again very slowly, the old man pushes the chair towards her, and she settles back in it with something between a sigh and an exclamation. Their faces have taken on an identical expression of concentration on something a long way off. He wheels her, very slowly, away” (p. 188).
Neither book is free of errors. Theroux uncritically accepts such inaccuracies as the following: prostitution is a capital crime; there are no longer tomb burials; Han men may not legally marry Uighur women; overseas-bound students must post 5,000-yuan bonds. Other examples of carelessness: dating the one-child policy from 1976 and claiming—against abundant contrary evidence—that it works well; placing the Tibetan uprisings in 1956; stating that “the Manchus were a Mongol dynasty” (p. 62); reversing the roles of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai in a traditional folktale; attributing the term “Whateverists” to an American consul general; alleging that “it is illegal for a foreigner to talk at random with any Chinese citizen” (p. 382).
Thubron's lapses are less noticeable. “Hun” (p. 76) is less accurate than Xiongnu. The Grand Canal is about 1,100 miles long, not 11,000. Xiamen, a coastal city, he characterizes as “deep in Fujian” (p. 167). He assumes Confucianism was central in China well before it was.
Thubron's errors will not impede understanding; some of Theroux's will—and will also reinforce unfortunate misconceptions. Thubron is the more attentive listener, the more careful writer, the more adept at shedding stereotypes. Thubron sets a new standard of excellence for accounts emerging from China visits.
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SOURCE: Reading, Peter. “Ethical Feats.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4510 (8 September 1989): 968.
[In the following negative review, Reading criticizes Falling, calling the novel “not particularly original.”]
Colin Thubron's very short new novel, Falling, is concise rather than concentrated. It tells the story of Mark Swabey (No. 63176), formerly a journalist on the Hampshire Times, who recalls his history from inside prison, where he is serving a sentence for manslaughter. The events leading to Swabey's incarceration are these: he jettisons his steady girlfriend Katherine, an artist and maker of stained-glass windows, so that he may devote his attention to Clara, a trapeze artiste, star of a run-down circus about which he has written a feature; journalist and aerialist become lovers; Clara, predictably, has an accident during a performance and plummets to the sawdust; her resulting paralysis (from the neck down) is heart-rendingly described; Mark, humanely and at her request, procures and administers barbiturates to ease her passing and is accordingly sentenced.
But, of course, the book is meant to be more than its plot. The blurb makes much of the symbolic implications of gravity-defying high-wire acts (“the courage to aim beyond human limitation”), of gaol being a microcosm of “the wider prison outside,” and so on—and Thubron openly avails himself of these obvious metaphors. However, there is not too much embarrassing heavy-handedness about all this, and the only real self-consciousness is Mark's own, written into the fiction, as he contemplates the significance of the actions and images which he has experienced. Even thematic coincidences and repetitions are made to seem (fairly) plausible. Thubron documents, as well as Clara's awful plunge, a falling in (and out of) love, a fall from grace, a daring descent down a high electric cable by an escaping prisoner, and the creation of Katherine's stained-glass church window depicting the fall of Lucifer. None of this is as laboured as it may sound—indeed, it makes quite easy reading, where one might have expected, in a work of such brevity, more “difficulty,” more dense allegory, more compact prose.
Falling is stylistically tidy, if not particularly original. The narrative is built up of chapter-sized units, mostly accounts by Mark describing his life in prison and his memories of the harrowing events which led to his being there. Interspersed with these are statements from Katherine, Clara, Mark's cell-mate and the prison chaplain, which serve to broaden our perception of the story. Because the author manages to insert genuine-sounding information (on trapeze technicalities, the niceties of stained-glass manufacture, the lingo used by prisoners, and so on), these first-hand accounts are all reasonably credible.
The ethical issues raised as this tragic action unfolds appear to preoccupy Thubron as much as his tinkering with the symbolical. The consideration due to one individual from another, the nature of duty between loved ones, the prerogative of the moribund to hasten their own expiry and the moral questionability of the way in which society incarcerates malefactors are all touched on. Nevertheless, by the last page, when Swabey has been released into a world for which he has a fresh receptivity (responding anew to the “dazing sight” of a green-grocer's shop with “rank on rank of brilliant, compartmentalised colour”), the reader is left with an impression of rambling purposelessness, and may be inclined to echo the prison padre: “these acrobatic feats are all very well, but the sceptic may reasonably enquire: to where was she ascending, and what for?”
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Of Love and Death.” Spectator 263, no. 8410 (16 September 1989): 43.
[In the following review, Brookner discusses the theme of obsessive love in Falling.]
The obsessive love affair used to inspire more novels than it does today, as if obsessive love were the one commodity that our consumer society could not afford. Colin Thubron dealt with such an affair most effectively in his last novel, A Cruel Madness, and he returns to the theme here [in Falling], giving it a new dimension of strangeness. Yet what emerges from both novels is the very old-fashioned Romantic notion that love and death occupy the same mysterious terrain, that the one leads inevitably to the other, and that a death, however crazed, however compromised, is the fitting conclusion—indeed the only conclusion—to the type of love which exceeds the norm, which is baroque, ardent, unsociable, and possibly, in its intensity, one-sided. The Romantic movement acknowledged this kind of love as vampiric, sadistic: it was seen as a grandiose affliction, from which only one of the two unfortunates involved could possibly survive.
But what kind of survival would be appropriate in such a case? Colin Thubron's hero (and in Romantic terms one must call him a hero) begins his story in a prison cell. His crime is not nameless but it is kept under wraps until two thirds of the way through this short, tense, absorbing novel. Indeed, it begins as a story of prison life and it is only in hindsight that Mark Swabey is established as a journalist in his early thirties, with an invalid mother and a deeply respectable girl friend who designs stained-glass windows. The girl friend is called Katherine, a name that might have been invented for the kind of dark haired, passive, well-behaved character bound to lose out to the wrecker who confounds her expectations of a happy life. The wrecker in this case is called Clara—Clara the Swallow—and she is a circus acrobat.
From stained-glass designer to circus acrobat is an effective metaphor for a love affair that is in every sense unorthodox and fraught with danger. Clara's aerial effects are to be contrasted with Katherine's masterpiece, which depicts a vision of the fall of Lucifer. This clue having been planted, it is not too difficult to anticipate what will happen to Clara: ‘Falling’ is not only the title but the theme of the novel.
There follows a painful and grief-stricken account of Clara's injuries and the way in which they are eased. Other voices join the account—Mark's cellmate, the prison chaplain, Katherine herself—but this device is not perhaps quite strong enough to justify the intrusions: a single-person narrative would best suit the Romantic tradition in which this novel should be placed. A coda to the main story is provided by the sight of a fellow-prisoner going over the wall. Once again, a cable takes the weight of a human body, and the penultimate image is of arms with fragments of mirror thrust out through the bars of cell windows as inmates try to follow the progress of the man making his escape. For my money the final image is the best: a banal street, the one that leads to the railway station and the newly released Mark's return to a normal life.
What Falling lacks in amplitude it augments by a twist of sadness that might in an earlier age have been called doom. For all its arcane imagery and signposting names it racks up a quota of strangeness not too often come by in these days of the post-modernist novel. Short, as perhaps it had to be, and authentically painful, it concerns itself with extreme states, as this author so often does. It has nothing to do with the kind of urbanity that makes novels popular. But Colin Thubron's voice is unique, and Falling may well turn out to be a genuine curiosity. It deserves to be: the author's voice, once heard, is difficult to forget. Those stricken lovers of the past, so common in the 1830s and 1840s, might well claim him as one of their own.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399
SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Going to Bed with an Author on Your Reading List.” London Review of Books 11, no. 18 (28 September 1989): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Wall offers a mixed assessment of Falling, but asserts that the novel consistently maintains its momentum.]
Colin Thubron's hero [in Falling] has to do with falling in a physical and, more vaguely, metaphysical sense. Mark Swabey is in prison for a crime whose actual nature isn't revealed until near the end of this terse tale, but which is connected with his passion for Clara, a trapeze artist of unusual grace and daring.
As a journalist, he is fascinated by the extent to which the circus world is outside normal society and enclosed on itself; he is astonished when Clara says she's never been in a church. It's like living in an alien culture, and Clara represents it at its purest, just as the troupe she's loyal to show it at its tattiest. The arabesque which is the climax of her act, done far above the audience without safety-net, is an act of self-delight. She's in another world, and when she falls back into this one the result is inevitably tragic.
When he meets Clara, Mark is already in love with Katherine, also an artist but one who designs stained-glass windows. She is having great difficulty in rendering the fall of Lucifer, with whom she feels little affinity. Colour of any kind seems inappropriate to him. Her jealousy and distress over Clara adds to the guilt and pain which Mark feels and which the prison chaplain can do nothing to alleviate. He has to come to terms not only with his memories but with the physical conditions of prison and the involuntary company of his fellow inmates, one of whom escapes via another kind of high wire from which he is in great danger of falling. Such resonances don't seem to add up to an allegorical scheme, and indeed their co-ordination might be tighter than it is. The interruption of the prevailing first-person narrative by testimonies from Katherine, Clara and others may also be tactically unwise: too brief to persuade as separate narrative identities, they can do little more than corroborate what we have already been told. They do not, however, diminish the considerable momentum that Falling develops. Mark's release from the Luciferian greyness of prison into the normal world of colour makes a telling final effect.
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SOURCE: Gittings, John. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. Third World Quarterly 12, nos. 3-4 (1990-91): 173-75.
[In the following review, Gittings compares Behind the Wall with Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster.]
Even a good travel book about China—and [Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron and Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux] are much more than travel books—now has to be measured against the grim standard of Tiananmen Square. Did Colin Thubron, or Paul Theroux, both exploring from north to south two or three years before the Beijing massacre, somehow grasp the key in one of their casual but profound conversations on night trains and day buses? Was it there, but too subtly concealed? The two writers are very different, one from England and the other from the USA; Thubron carefully selective, Theroux with a deceptively careless tendency to list everything down to the size of the squat toilets.
Yet both get so many things exactly right: the variety of Chinese laughs none of which denote humour, the obsession with food, the hovering sense of recent history, the way that the traveller hates travelling but cannot stop. Both get on well, too, with the Chinese, although Thubron makes contact with the solitary while Theroux mixes with the crowd. I dare say that their names in Chinese must have sounded very similar too: Mr Tampon (Thubron) and Mr Tielu (Theroux). They travelled for ages. After a while the reader begins to ache with vicarious fatigue. Why cannot they take Philip Larkin's advice? He said ‘I wouldn't mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.’
Theroux has an ear for the Chinese language and the social constrictions of dialogue. He knows about the prolix mistakes of Western visitors. Chinese gratitude is tersely, but formally, expressed. Profuse thanks indicate an attempt to escape obligation. In Beijing he visits a bath house: little by little, the steaming faces of his fellow-bathers circle closer. One of them suddenly speaks: ‘Welcome. We are very pleased that you are in your bath.’ He replies correctly: ‘I'm very glad to be in your bath.’ Later on, he has a conversation about how the West has baths in every house. Paul Theroux also visits the bath house in Beijing, but has a very un-Chinese conversation. He meets a man who tells him that it is a good place to go with a boy. And when Theroux asks why, he is quite specific about what they can do together.
Thubron only mentions Deng Xiaoping once, although he was travelling when the appeal of Deng's economic reforms had not yet been significantly tarnished by repression and corruption. There is, interestingly, no exact chronological marker in his text. The people he meets mostly avoid direct political comment. He tells us what he himself thinks with the occasional metaphor. In the lake next to the Zhongnanhai (where the ageing Chinese leadership lives and works) his attention is caught ‘by the enormous eyes of numberless grey carp, soundlessly opening and closing their mouths.’
Theroux makes it clear that he was travelling in 1986-7, when the student protest movement picked up speed and Deng sacrificed his protégé, the communist Hu Yaobang, to the conservative party elders. He is always asking what people think of politics. He describes, correctly, Deng as open-minded but still an ‘energetic hangman,’ and quotes Deng's view that, ‘Execution is the one indispensable means of education.’ Later, he passes through Shanghai where the general view is that the student demonstrators have been led into a trap, since the party conservatives will use their demonstrations as an excuse to attack the reforms. But Theroux wonders whether anyone cares about such boring political ambushes. ‘My feeling was that I would much rather be bird-watching in Heilongjiang (province).’
This was a reasonable view at the time. No one—certainly not we China specialists—expected either the student movement to revive with such greater force two years later, or the conservatives to respond with such devastating repression. Behind the bickering there only seemed to be one direction for China in which the Communist Party apparently colluded. As Theroux writes: ‘People were changing jobs, making dresses, peddling their own wares, and selling their vegetables off their own pushcarts. But it was a great mistake for anyone to call this capitalism. You had to call it The Chinese Way … The government did not want to appear soft, and the party preferred to live with the illusion that it was more repressive than it actually was.’
Thubron makes no political forecasts—he does not even mention Hu Yaobang, who was still in charge during his visit. But on page after page, his book conveys a sense of pervasive alienation. When I first read it, two years ago, I felt that this was more a reflection of the traveller's unease than of Chinese reality. Now I believe that he tapped a deeper truth. One of the most liberating features of the democracy movement in 1989 was that it redeemed so many older Chinese from the shame and self-disgust that they felt both personally and for their nation. Intellectuals who had stood aside from Democracy Wall ten years before now identified with the students. The cynical, shoving self-interest of the ordinary Beijinger was discarded. It was this unparalleled informal coalition of student, scholar and citizen, breathing real life into the old and mostly bogus ‘spirit of selflessness,’ which forced a reactionary leadership to summon the tanks.
The psychological insight of Thubron's reflective eye hits the target again and again. We start with the ‘frail, mask-like, sometimes beautiful’ faces of the kindergarten children, watched maternally by their bespectacled teachers’ ‘bestowers and withholders of all love.’ The tiniest divergence of behaviour drew ‘staccato orders and pointed fingers.’ There is the compulsive need for structured togetherness which makes Chinese regard the lone travelling foreigner as a wholly bizarre phenomenon. Tourism has no meaning unless it is recorded in snapshots, which are really statements of identity. ‘You're travelling alone?’ he was asked. ‘Then how do you manage to photograph?’
Thubron also puts his finger on the reason why the Chinese collective stare at the lone foreigner can be so unnerving. It is the blankness, not the interest, which disconcerts. ‘I found myself marvelling at the enclosed conformity of this land—infinitely more impressive than its difference—now mirrored in the still, unblinking focus of the crowd. Their stare lingered down from my face and over my clothes, my shoes, my rucksack—not with the acquisitive glitter of the Arab but with a dull, hopeless disconnection, as they might stare at fish.’
His most deadly passage describes a hideous inversion of the idealised picture of Chinese family harmony—a gathering whose inner tensions are instantly revealed to the foreigner. An old woman complains about her daughters. One of them parades for Thubron in a succession of dresses—first a crimson ballgown and finally an unbecoming mini-skirt—acquired at the privileged Friendship Store. The performance betrays, he writes ‘the narcissism of the emotionally deprived, an enforcement of self.’
I think that Paul Theroux liked China more: at any rate, he travelled more cheerfully. Thubron was tormented by the melancholy conundrums of history at Shaoshan, Mao Zedong's empty birthplace, and slept uneasily in the Chairman's bed. Theroux enjoyed both Mao's contradictions and the emptiness. ‘I loved the empty train arriving at the empty station. Was there a better image of obscurity? As for the houses and village, they were like many temples in China, where no one prayed any longer; just a heap of symmetrical stones representing waste, confusion and ruin. China was full of such places, dedicated to the memory of someone or other and, lately, just an excuse for setting up picnic tables and selling souvenirs.’
Now there are new monuments, not yet officially recognised but already dedicated by silent voices to those who died last year. Is the China described by Thubron and Theroux the old crust which holds back this new emerging China? If so it is a very substantial crust and will take years more to slough off. These two studies of contemporary China—travel book seems an inadequate description—are painfully (often also amusingly) relevant.
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SOURCE: Gooderham, Tim. “Flight Away from Danger.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4614 (6 September 1991): 21.
[In the following review, Gooderham argues that Turning Back the Sun and Falling are both examples of how Thubron “is one of the current masters of the short novel.”]
Colin Thubron's novels are concerned with emotional extremes; in Turning Back the Sun, his latest, he frames those extremes within the geographical and cultural oppositions which are familiar from his travel writing. Like its predecessor, Falling (1989), this book is pivoted on a difficult choice; though, here, the choice involves a flight away from danger and exhilaration rather than towards it.
The protagonist, Rayner, is a doctor who practises in an isolated town in an unspecified country with a colonial background. Marooned by residential restrictions, he remains isolated in a fragmented, backward community riven with prejudice and hypocrisy and wary of the “savages” who continue a nomadic existence in the surrounding wilderness. The story opens during a particularly hot summer, when murders on outlying farms and the outbreak of an unknown disease bring racial hostility to the surface, and increase Rayner's desire to go back to the country's capital, scene of his happy childhood and his first love.
By the time he does get the chance to return, things have been complicated by his affair with Zoë, a dancer in a nightclub. The character of Zoë has many parallels with Clara in Falling: both oscillate between the roles of affectionate lover and remote, idiosyncratic performer in a seedy show. Both prove irresistibly mysterious to the hero; though, in this case, Thubron develops the relationship further and lets the central dilemma rest on the unresolved tension between Rayner's obsession with returning to the capital and the determination of Zoë, also an exile, to stay in the only place where she feels she can express herself.
These are the central strands of Turning Back the Sun. With the exotic setting, however, Thubron has set aside the headlong purity of Falling for a more ambitious structure. When Rayner becomes personally involved with the Aborigine-like natives, befriending and later sheltering an old man and his daughter, the relationship becomes a demonstration of the cultural gulf between them. This does not slip into a mere plea for tolerance. Racial violence in the town seems inevitable; and when Rayner tries to outface the cold racist logic of his old friend, Ivar, commander in the local garrison, he finds himself being treated as an unstable element.
The novel seems to be rushing towards some kind of tragic climax; the fact that it moves away in an unexpected direction, while still managing to be gripping to the last page, is a tribute to Thubron's skill. At his best, he is comparable with William Golding in his ability to produce prose which is at once concise and poetic. Some of the techniques of a travel-writer are apparent in the scene-setting, and in the way Thubron is able to create a sense of openness or enclosure (the irreconcilable divisions between settlers and natives are, in part, due to their different ways of comprehending time, space and life). The intimate scenes between Rayner and Zoë are sometimes very moving, as are those between Rayner and the old native, showing Thubron's ability to create such powerful cells of emotion within an economical and fast-moving narrative. Together with Falling, Turning Back the Sun is proof that Thubron is one of the current masters of the short novel.
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SOURCE: Lawson, Neroli. “Face Values.” New Statesman and Society 120, no. 4055 (18 October 1991): 36.
[In the following review, Lawson criticizes Turning Back the Sun, calling the work “shallow” and “crude.”]
If you are fond of Colin Thubron, do not spoil it by reading this novel [Turning Back the Sun]. It has some dense, elliptical prose and some fertile imagery. But these fine patches only show up the rest as pedestrian and obvious.
The story concerns white men's ignorance and hostility, out in frontier country, towards native blacks. Rayner, our white hero, espouses the black cause. The moral crisis is illustrated by having Rayner and his childhood friend act out opposing parts. Thubron is looking at questions of the city versus the wilderness, and of the savage versus the civilised ethos. His savages, black and earth-connected, feel like Australian aboriginals. His terrain is lofty and unforgiving, like the Silk Road of China. There is, in addition, a love story.
Having set up his drama, Thubron finds his conclusion by bringing most of his strands together. These are reasonable novelistic conventions. But he fails to entice this reader with any scent of mystery.
His most successful character is the landscape, described with fluency and a wide but unshowy vocabulary. This is as true of the city as of the wilderness, and he moves easily between foreground and background. Daily changes are observed with subtlety and sophistication: “In different humours he found different towns here; a place of crude vigour, a town of blinkered pragmatism, a city of pure loss.”
The landscape, which has a changing and developing relationship with the other elements, achieves the status of a character. Since Homer also put nature in contrapuntal relation to the actions of men, Thubron is in good company. In contemporary fiction, landscape is often absent, but this writer's best imagery comes from the natural world.
He is good on reading faces as the map of an individual's life, especially with men, and especially with “savages.” He gives to the face what he gives to the mountain: affection. Faces and mountains are bigger than Rayner; their draft is deeper than this particular story.
But, savages and heroine apart, Rayner sees through everybody and hates them for the foolish choices of their lives. Thubron's characterisation is clumsily based on perfunctory psychoanalysis. His women are especially shallow. What a large number of breasts in this text: why are they always young or pert, smooth or tender? Zoë, his heroine, is forever feline, and arching herself about the place. His native girl's body is “lissome and coppery … her young breasts brushed against his wrists.” Rayner manages to be in awe of these cardboard women. This leaves Thubron looking only foolish.
The lack of compassion for his characters is unforgiveable. They feel like items of machinery, useful for moving the story forward. You simply groan when he gives his hero an appointment with a psychoanalyst, as a device for bringing in his parental history.
Thubron, who has spent years travelling the world, chooses a story that is all common denominator. It is plausible in the way of a TV soap opera, and similarly crude. Where is the particularity, the urgency of this one story? Make up any kind of town you like. If you are García Márquez, say, you call it Macondo, and it is more lifelike than any town you can find in the atlas.
But this novel is nothing but an outline. Only here and there does some oasis of cleverness glint from the endless bluff of rock. As a novel it is serviceable—but only just. When you are Colin Thubron, with ten books (including four novels) behind you, that is not enough. Not nearly.
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SOURCE: Abel, Betty. Review of Turning Back the Sun, by Colin Thubron. Contemporary Review 260, no. 1513 (February 1992): 101-03.
[In the following excerpt, Abel offers a positive assessment of Turning Back the Sun.]
In Colin Thubron's remarkably imaginative novel, Turning Back the Sun, the two places which he recreates are unreal but at the same time impressively realistic. Existing in an unidentified country, they possess characteristically Australian attributes with alien overtones of political coercion in terms of pass laws and work permits. A shabby, dry frontier town is the centre of the action but the capital city which we never visit is fertile in everyone's nostalgic memories as well as being physically by the water's edge. Typically hinterland country leads out only to the wilderness where the aboriginal natives regard the encroaching town with incomprehension and continue their more important rituals in spite of the apparent sophistication of the disenchanted town dwellers. Even two ‘savages’ Rayner adopts are uninvolved. These aboriginals become a silent fringe between the town and the blue distance about which neither they nor the ‘white men’ are at all curious. Their one dramatic outburst, totally unexpected, comes as a climax at the end of the book. They mass together silently, terrifyingly, covered in white glistening paint and surge towards the headlands in the ceremony of ‘turning back the sun’ as it descends over the rim of the world to usher in the night. Their true concerns are with the cosmos as it affects them, not at all with strangers beyond their tribes.
Rayner, the chief character, lives and works in the frontier town but he is obsessed by the city where he was brought up. Convinced that he really wants to return, he makes no effort to do so or even go on a visit. It gradually becomes clear that the book is less about place than about a universal sense of loss and belonging, and the part memory plays in shaping our lives. Rayner's love affair with a local night club dancer repeats this theme, for the girl, Zoe, reveals in her pretty but ineffective performances that she too is haunted by the past and apprehensive about the future. The unattainable city has to her the thin dreamlike quality of the aboriginal dreamtime rituals. All their friends are similarly ambivalent towards the present. When a series of vicious murders besets the town and causes further unease, and an unidentifiable skin disease attacks Rayner's patients, such trials seem to stem from the townsfolks' inability to solve any of their psychic problems. Something almost like the despair found in Camus' novel The Plague settles upon them. Zoe and the other girls are seen by Thubron as slightly outside this generally strong theme since they are concerned only with dressing and making up. He appears to be quite unsure where his women characters fit into more practical affairs even whilst making them vivid and colourful. This is the only inconsistency in what is certainly a novel of depth and complexity written in accomplished prose shot through with rich metaphor.
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SOURCE: Murphy, Dervla. “Not Only the Past, Brittle with Relics.” Spectator 273, no. 8672 (24 September 1994): 44.
[In the following review, Murphy praises Thubron's insight and attention to detail in The Lost Heart of Asia.]
Yes, they said, they were Yagnobski. They all spoke Sogdian in the home, young and old, and had inherited the language from their parents, by ear … I listened almost in disbelief. This, I told myself, was the last, distorted echo of the battle-cries shouted 2500 years ago by the armies of the Great Kings at Marathon and Thermopylae, all that remained from the chant of Zoroastrian priests or the pleas of Persian satraps to Alexander the Great. Yet it was spoken by impoverished goatherds in the Pamirs.
Colin Thubron's search for those goatherds took him through the north-west Pamir on tracks that climbed to 11,000 feet and caused his friend Oman's battered Lada to ‘buck like a stallion’ and subsequently to develop arcane defects. Merely to think of this author's pen at work on the Pamirs makes the heart beat faster and in Chapter 10 his lyricism is at its most inspired. The Lost Heart of Asia is not a book to be read quickly. On almost every page gleam burnished paragraphs, prose only in their form, in their sensibility pure poetry—and yet, in the precision of each detail, as exact as a photograph.
The discovery of Sogdian-speakers in a secluded valley was but one of several exhilarating encounters with the distant past, rewards for Colin Thubron's tireless pursuit of vague clues that had inflamed his scholarly imagination. Despite our modern perception of Central Asia as unutterably remote, wild and vast it has been firmly linked from time immemorial to the histories of China, the Near East, India and Europe. Deftly Colin Thubron arranges and rearranges this millenia-long chain into a series of complex patterns—gaudy and dramatic, or noble and dignified, or subtle and shadowy, or jagged and bloody. Given his disarmingly diffident erudition and intuitive understanding of archaic cultures, it would have been easy for him to write an excellent book based entirely on a journey through Central Asia's past. He has, however, set himself a far harder task: to present Central Asia now as well as then.
Within months of ‘liberation from Moscow,’ Colin Thubron began his slow, perceptive, reflective journey, travelling by train, bus, communal taxi and, where no public transport existed, in Oman's Lada. On a few occasions he noticed that all his gestures were being closely studied: never before had the locals met a Westerner. Adaptable as ever, he went with the flow, accepting the most improbable invitations and only rarely being overcome by squeamishness. In the Pamirs a sheep's head defeated him; his description of his companions' ecstatic ingestion of that delicacy is memorable. He drank far too much vodka on spontaneous picnics in bizarre surroundings with addled acquaintances—addled both by vodka and by those swift, incomprehensible political shifts that had just turned their world upside down. As a rucksack-carrying Russian-speaker, he was tolerated by everyone and confided in by many. He has always been a thoughtfully kind traveller, unarrogantly sure of his own principles yet sensitive to the moral dilemmas of others and slow to condemn parochial prejudices. Never have those qualities been more obvious than in this book, where he is every day meeting the confused victims of a failed ideology and recording, with unsentimental compassion, their very different reactions to past repression and present uncertainty.
Within these pages Turkmenia, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan become real places, inhabited by individuals with whom we can identify—places at once anciently romantic and Soviet-squalid, their beauty and their ugliness equally extreme. Communism brutally over-whelmed these artificial ‘republics,’ importing millions of superior (in their own estimation) Russians and establishing borders as meaningless as the colonial lines on the map of Africa. In many areas industrial pollution has Ruled OK for three generations, its novel poisons rapidly debilitating communities bred to survive nature's toughest challenges. And now the ordinary folk must struggle to adjust to their frighteningly abrupt liberation.
Who are these ordinary folk, in the lost heart of Asia? Their origins are as diverse—and by now as mixed—as their history is awesome. Long centuries before London or Paris were dreamed of, their cities rose and flourished as centres of commerce and luxury, art and learning. Their folklore, though to some extent Soviet-corroded, persistently recalls matriarchy and fire-worship, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane and Genghis Khan—not as school-book material but as palpable contemporary influences. Palpable, that is, to the discerning traveller who can recognise the connections between the mighty isolated ruins he happens to find en route and the frayed yet enduring traditions still surviving beneath the bewildered, apprehensive post-Communist surface.
The Lost Heart of Asia is a worthy sequel to Among the Russians, published in 1983 and generally recognised as the finest travel book ever written about the U.S.S.R west of the Urals.
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SOURCE: Malcomson, Scott. “Game Park for Hominids.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4774 (30 September 1994): 26.
[In the following review, Malcomson compliments the prose in The Lost Heart of Asia, but argues that Thubron does not have an adequate grasp of Central Asian history.]
Colin Thubron is among the most exemplary of contemporary Western travel writers, and his new book, The Lost Heart of Asia, which relates his travels through the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, should further his already considerable reputation. He brings special gifts to the task, wielding an athletic and sprightly vocabulary (now I have “ondine,” “pelmet” and “bungaloid” in my word-bank). I'm not at all certain, however, that mare's milk can be “fomented” (though it is fermented) or that heads can be “shriven” to skulls, but the images conjured are entrancing. This semantic facility certainly makes what may have been dull moments more exciting—his trademark descriptive passages, both baroque and terse, are carefully paced:
I approached his audience-chamber through a ruined gate where a stone lion roared harmlessly, and entered an empty field of paving. The plinths of a lost arcade made orphaned rows of stone. At the end, on a long dais, the canopy of the vanished throne rose on wonky pillars, and touched the dereliction with a trashy pomp. There was nothing else.
Thubron unerringly locates death and desolation in these emphatic, inebriated landscapes. He is a peerless enthusiast of cemeteries, and goes far out of his way to find ruins unknown even to the locals.
The people of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are at best conscious pallbearers. Much contemporary Western travel writing treats its stamping grounds as a hominid game park, and The Lost Heart of Asia falls confidently within this tradition. “I looked into a primordial Slavic face … I had encountered this face, I thought, a thousand times in the vanished Soviet Union. It looked old yet benignly half-formed: the gross, fleshy protoplast of Mother Russia”; with their “jowled, brachycephalic heads,” a group of Kirghiz “looked like pantomime peasants. Their rolling-pin arms swung out from muscle-bound shoulders, and their felt hats lent them a doltish gaiety.” As Thubron rolls into Kazakhstan, “the solitary faces watching us pass seemed to replicate the featureless plain. …” On alighting, he finds “the stocky childlike Kazakhs were all about. They looked guileless and enduring.” A Tajik girl “had the slender face and alert eyes of her tribe, and ran barefoot about the flat on long feet with prehensile toes.” Elsewhere we find “the cruel oval of the Mongol steppe,” while poor Tania sports “a slovenly, vegetable face, whose nose and eyes had capsized in the fatness of her cheeks.” And Thubron liked Tania.
These faces are not only intriguingly agile, they are, for Thubron, astoundingly expressive. A Khan has an “imbecile chin,” Muslim students feature “rustic, cloistered expressions,” the faces of Turkomans on a train “were those of Hunnish destroyers” whose beards “forked angrily.” We learn much about Central Asians from such eloquent faces.
The characters who actually speak—mostly drivers or guides for long talks—are rather inarticulate. (Again, this is characteristic of contemporary Western travel writing.) His companions are given to exclamation, as if their encounters with Thubron were a stunned initiation into reflection and abstract thought. Personally, I can vouch (though it should not be necessary) for the existence of numbers of Central Asians who are capable of sustained reasoning and even of constructing complex sentences that may reach considerable lengths. Such people do not appear in The Lost Heart of Asia.
Large issues are at stake in this book: nationalism, colonialism, Muslim fundamentalism, Communism, gender roles, ethnic revivalism. Thubron's own, infrequently expressed views run towards the conviction that anything done to excess is done badly. He shows a genuine fondness for Christianity. Yet, on the whole, his world-view remains obscure, an occulted positive for which his characters and their anxious blurtings—on the issues mentioned above, and others—serve as negative referents.
Indeed, Central Asian history generally is cast in a negative light. “For two thousand years Central Asia was the womb of terror, where an implacable queue of barbarian races waited to impel one another into history.” Thubron has a Herodotean grasp of the Central Asian past: Scythians are “Aryan savages whose country was the horse,” while Avars appear as “long-haired centaurs.” This is, of course, fantasy. The Karakhanids are “obscure” only if you haven't studied them. A Naqshbandi holy man's explanation that his saint believed in achievement through work is not “stakhanovite” but a basic and distinctive tenet of Naqshbandi thought since the fourteenth century. Chilik is not a word to “express a sober, Turkic dignity”; it isn't a word at all, but a compound ending. (Thubron doesn't seem to have examined any of the Turkic languages; he got by with Russian.)
Given his weak, yet highly confident, hold on Central Asian history, Thubron at times goes so far as to deny Central Asians as having been part of history at all. One sees this in the image of barbarians waiting to ride “into history,” as if their own past were an annexe to the real thing. The words “timeless,” “innocent,” “childlike” and “artless” season The Lost Heart of Asia. Thubron points out repeatedly that today's Central Asians often understand little of their peoples' pasts and are eagerly making things up to serve present purposes. This is, of course, precisely what Thubron has himself been engaged in. But what are his purposes? Mostly, I think, they are sensory. He takes delight in the crumbling of faiences. He approaches memory's dilapidated caverns with an eager, epicurean languour, savouring others' loss like a sweet. He is not interested in his characters but in the aesthetic possibilities of their ruination; he makes them carry their headstones. He might consider, as a kindness, just going to the cemeteries, and leaving the people to themselves. Then he will have written perhaps the ultimate contemporary Western travel book.
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SOURCE: Mortimer, Molly. “A Writer Who Travels.” Contemporary Review 266, no. 1553 (June 1995): 334-35.
[In the following review, Mortimer praises Thubron's “picturesque prose” in The Lost Heart of Asia.]
There are travellers who write and writers who travel. Between them lies a river of reality. Colin Thubron belongs to the second class. He is no Thessiger or Post. He has an excellent mixture [in The Lost Heart of Asia] as before which teases out into gobbets of history and chats with the natives, heavily larded with epithet and adjective of which he has a large and original variety; and uses deftly. But like an over rich cake, scintillation can sicken and so die like gorgeous palaces of the ‘Tempest.’ There is a certain egoism which informs us that his first book was written in a monastery; the second in a brothel. For travel books he needs the conscious eccentricity of Holland Park, within reach of libraries.
This creates the unworthy thought that a first-class journalist might have created this book without stirring. There is plenty of material for Thubron's fascinating excursions round the Asiatic Muslim States of the ex-Soviet Union and even more down the great Sea River Oxus, where was enacted the tragedy of Sohrab and Rustem, and where Alexander nearly lost his army to thirst in 329 BC.
Thubron evokes vividly the vast shapelessness of an area where emperors rose like whirling storms riding west until the impetus failed, from Genghis Khan to Tamurlane.
For two thousand years, in Thubron's picturesque prose, Central Asia was a womb of terror where implacable queues of barbarian races impelled one another into history, and empires reaching from Vienna to China; where Iranian and Turk fought in age-long enmity. Tamurlane, a kind of Asiatic Arthur, was the last of these world predators, born in 1336 near Samarkand, his capital.
No travel book is complete without Samarkand, city of golden imagination on the edge of myth and geography. A true product of the Music Makers, ‘with wonderful deathless ditties we build up the world's great cities.’ For no city has been so lauded by people who never saw it. Thubron's bus made landfall at a nondescript depot near a monolithic statue of Lenin but only the great mosque of Tamurlane still spoke of past glory.
Today, the lost heart of Asia is being transformed into ECO, a ten-member Economic Cooperation Organisation with a prosaic and prosperous future. But within it Turk and Iranian still face each other; the growl of a new Islamic empire can be heard and Colin Thubron is wise to draw no conclusions. Only that it was late and dark, and not his country.
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SOURCE: Peters, Bill. Review of The Lost Heart of Asia, by Colin Thubron. Asian Affairs 26, no. 3 (October 1995): 323-24.
[In the following review, Peters examines Thubron's exploration of the role of Islam in Central Asia in The Lost Heart of Asia.]
This reisebeschreibung [The Lost Heart of Asia] is a worthy addition to Colin Thubron's already substantial and distinguished corpus on his expeditions in Asia. His journey began with a flight across the Caspian and the Karakum to Ashkhabad, and ended near Torugart in the east of Kyrgystan beyond Lake Issyk Kul on the western border of Xinjiang. It was made during the first spring and summer after the dissolution of the USSR, in the early months of the “independence” of the six Central Asian Republics. It provides glimpses, therefore, of that part of the world where the “new order” may be expected to bring the greatest changes, where the potential for conflict and revanchism may be very great, and where newly emerging forces both racial and religious may result in transformations yet to be imagined. I am reminded of the reaction of a young British officer of Dunsterforce in the Caucasus during the upheavals of 1917-1918 who said, “Undreamed of things were materialising. The world was in flux and everything seemed possible.”
Clearly one of the questions in Thubron's mind was the future role of Islam, seen against the long and chequered history of the area in shaping its political destiny. He was, after all, moving along the “fault line” stretching from the Pillars of Hercules to farthest Cathay where Muslim lands front those of other faiths or none. But Thubron's careful and subtle questioning failed to reveal a common pattern. Many influences are at work—Turkic nostalgia for a far-flung past, Iranian fundamentalist impulses, the recent angry memories of the Afghan War, the everlasting Shia/Sunni divide, residual Marxist atheism and Russian imperialist echoes. In Kàzakhstan and Tajikistan his Muslim interlocutors displayed, by and large, “Islam drawn lightly over nomadic shamanism.” Elsewhere, strong feeling for a pan-Islamic vision either did not appear or did so after prolonged enquiry and prompting. The Russian nightmare of a widening fundamentalist drive which would threaten the heartland simply did not figure.
This is not entirely surprising. The racial patchwork of Central Asia surely militates against it. This results not only from the original tribal mixture at the prime source of nomadic flows, the cockpit of blitzkriegs, the repeatedly transformed arena for landgrabbing. Stalin made his contributions by the transfer of whole peoples, the forlorn remnants of which Thubron often encountered. Russian outlanders as well as many others like the Dungans and Uighurs escaped from Xinjiang, an isolated Korean Christian community in the Kirghiz capital, the detritus from Kruschev's virgin lands policy across the north of the area, the leftover proletariat of declined mining or industry at Karanganda, “the dumping ground of unwanted nations” (and Kazakhstan's second city). While delineating this complexity the author is able also to sketch much of the enormous historical complexity on which it lies. He gives a fascinating glimpse round Yagnob of the expiring remnants of the Sogdian tongue, faint echoes from the armies of Darius and Xerxes; and revives memories of that Basmachi riposte to red terror when the Tashkent Bolsheviks reaped the whirlwind after the slaughter of Kokand's population. A few eddies escaped him. There is no mention, for example, of the Tibetan armies, precursors of the Mongol horde before Buddhism removed their martial ardour, which swept west in the eighth century to envelop Samarkand; perhaps the “bronzes from lost Buddhist temples” he found in the Lenin Museum at Bishkek were traces of the same curtailed expansion.
Another omission apart from brief mentions of cross-border contacts is Xinjiang's looming presence to the East. Many of the longer established peoples encountered by Thubron are present in varying strength within Xinjiang—Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Tadjiks, Uighurs, Turkmenis, Azeris, to say nothing of the Mongols and the Hui. China's policy towards the republics at present is merely to expand economic penetration; but a time could come when the shared interests of these cross-border peoples became a threat to Xinjiang, or alternately, China en route to its 21st-century super-power destiny could revive its wider expansionist drives like that already unleashed in Tibet. China shares Russia's fears of pan-Islam but its long experience of divide-and-rule may prove a more successful strategy than Russia's occasional pragmatic confrontations.
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SOURCE: Quinn, Anthony. Review of Distance, by Colin Thubron. Observer (15 September 1996): 15.
[In the following review, Quinn criticizes the “implausibilities” in Distance, but notes that the novel does keep the reader engaged.]
The metaphor twinkling over Colin Thubron's new novel [Distance] feels almost too perfect a fit for his stricken narrator. Edward, an edgy young astronomer, has been pursuing research into black holes: ‘The ghosts that haunt our universe … the core of massive stars that have died, collapsed in on themselves aeons ago and shrunk to nuggets of near infinite density.’ Somewhere in the course of his studies, however, Edward has stumbled into a black hole of his own: he has lost his memory, and finds himself sealed off from the past. He was rather proud of his powers of recall before (‘I knew Schrödinger's wave equation by heart’); now he can't even remember the woman he lives with.
Naomi, the woman in question, is understandably at a loss, while Edward begins a slow and painful excavation of his recent past. The operations of the mind, he learns, are as darkly mysterious as the constellations he has made his life's study. Memories return piecemeal—his mother's death a year before breaks anew upon the walls of his consciousness, but this is not the trauma that has undone him: ‘Between my last memory and now, I think, stretches a desert of 14 months. I'll cross it soon, whatever I've done, whatever was done to me …’ In the meantime, amnesia forces him to reassess his life, burdened as it is by the acute melancholia of being sub specie aeternitatis: ‘All at once I find myself hypnotised by the total inexplicability of my existence, like the blink in eternity on the only planet known to sustain life among presumed millions. It's like a stupefying fluke.’
These cosmological misgivings gradually help to unlock stalled banks of his memory. What resurfaces is this: a holiday in Sulawesi with a fellow astronomer, Jaqueline, a fiercely intelligent and ambitious woman whom Edward has fallen in love with; their dangerous climb to the charred lip of a volcano, and the revelation of Jaqueline's uncompromising nihilism. Beneath their professional rivalry more serious personal antipathies become apparent, though they are somewhat confused in the telling: ‘She returned to my outdated fear that the star was beneath the minimum mass for a black hole, and queried my diagnosis of its X-ray signature, stirring an old panic about burster signals which had negated my first computations.’
Well, no wonder their relationship is on the rocks. At some level Edward realises that their intellectual sparring is really about the two of them splitting up, but Thubron, reluctant to abandon the clever analogy, keeps up the scientific debate long after its purpose has been served.
A certain stiltedness affects other parts of the book. Passing through Dorchester, Edwards spies through a café window a woman who is a dead ringer—he imagines—for his old girlfriend. Next thing, he has elicited an invitation back to her place and without so much as a burster signal is trying to tear her clothes off. Looks like good manners have gone the same way as his memory. Then it's off to a friary for a perfunctory reunion with an old college friend who has taken orders, which allows Thubron to give us a quick refresher course on the pros and cons of religious faith. At times it seems to be the author who's got the memory problem: he has forgotten how people talk to each other.
These implausibilities notwithstanding, the book pulls the reader on. I kept changing my mind, one moment appalled by the narrator's reference to his tackle as ‘my sex,’ the next impressed by an incidental phrase (‘her laughter stuttered out like a jamming machine-gun’). The writing is spare and unfussy, and in the book's closing stages the basic thriller mechanism—what horrible secret lurks in memory's locked attic?—is screwed tighter with each page. Indeed, the story's climax is easily the best thing in the novel and might help to muffle whatever doubts have accumulated over the rest of it—chiefly, a coldness at its heart. For all the elegant braiding of themes—the elusiveness of knowledge, the search for faith—it is difficult to shake the impression of a cautious, even clinical, withholding. Distance might be a more appropriate title than was ever intended.
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SOURCE: Reynolds, Oliver. “Speaking Subjectively.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4877 (20 September 1996): 23.
[In the following review, Reynolds discusses Thubron's use of scientific concepts in Distance.]
Edward Sanders, the narrator of Colin Thubron's sixth novel, Distance, is doing postgraduate research into black holes. At the start of the novel, he has lost his short-term memory: “The first thing I notice is the hand resting on the tablecloth. It is lean, almost delicate. I move it a little, to be sure it is mine.” By the end, he has remembered the shocking events which provoked his amnesia, and the book's structure, alternating present and past, follows the gradual recovery of his memory. One of the strengths of the novel is its depiction of the self as a function of time: how can you exist in the present without the ballast of the past? Sanders's repressed memories are bound up with a love-affair; as in all of Thubron's novels, the central relationship in Distance is that between a man and a woman, seen from the man's perspective. The patterns of feeling are familiar from his other work and their archetypal form is found in his fourth novel, Falling (1990), in which the narrator is besotted with a trapeze-artist. Disabled by love, the male gazes upward where the female, spotlit by desire, remains impossibly aloof.
Sanders is obsessed with a fellow scientist, Jaqueline Everard. She has the expected attributes of what might be called the Thubron Woman: she is “complex … unpredictable,” brilliantly gifted (she is working on supernovas in the same observatory as Sanders) and “has legs like a beautiful deer.” More importantly, she is less keen on Sanders than he is on her. The distance between lovers can be as great as that between stars. As in Falling, the ethereal attractions of one woman are contrasted with the more dependable qualities of another. The woman Sanders lives with is a portrait-painter, Naomi. Her portraits of Sanders and Jaqueline point up some of the book's themes. How do we see, and judge, other people? How much are our feelings for them made up of the past we share with them? The most affecting scenes are those in which Sanders returns to the bed he shares with Naomi, and struggles with his perception of her as a total stranger. Here, male perceptions of female otherness are part of Sanders's amnesia, and thus liable to change. His recovery of his memory, his reacquaintance with how and why he loves Naomi, and her reactions to him, are powerful and moving.
Distance is the fourth of Thubron's novels to rely on a first-person narrative. As with two of the others, Falling and A Cruel Madness (a title taken from Tennyson: “And most of all I would flee from the cruel madness of love …”), our access to the narrator's strained sensibilities tends to distance us from the other characters. Thubron's excellent second novel, Emperor, alternates a number of first- and third-person accounts. The writing has the same qualities as that in Thubron's travel books: a romantic sensibility is tempered by a near-classical style. The complementary nature of Thubron's work as novelist and travel-writer can be seen when Sanders and Naomi find “a bat hanging like a tulip”; in his book on the Lebanon, The Hills of Adonis (1968), Thubron describes “a tiny bat, hanging like a folded tulip.” Such exact parallels point up a more general dissimilarity. Where the simplicities of style in the travel books have a hard-earned austerity, the fervid subjectivism of the novels can be pitched too high: “… she was smiling at me with her old radiance: the tilted eyes harpooning mine like fish.”
The telling of stories has always depended on time and time passing. “Once upon a time” is ageless and deathless. Recently, novelists such as Ian McEwan (A Child in Time) and Martin Amis (Time's Arrow) have balked at some of the philosophical implications of our understanding of time. Distance examines time, and love, through the mechanism of memory. In a book about scientists, there is a pleasing stringency to some of its techniques, as if it were an equation worked out by means of experiment. A man plus a woman plus time equals love. Remove the element of time (in the form of memory). What remains? Unfortunately, though, Distance also gives the impression of using scientific matters as a sort of decor for the emotions. Jaqueline has a number of speeches about infinity and the universe in which one is more aware of the novel's intellectual framework than of her; one hears the argument, but not a tone of voice.
It also seems injudicious to use infinity as the backdrop to a love-affair. There is more to the universe than local colour. Similarly, there is something over-determined about the match between Sanders's condition (amnesia) and his work (black holes). Perhaps the novelist trying to be true to the scientific experience is a modern equivalent of the alchemist searching for the philosopher's stone. The only lines given to Jaqueline's supervisor (spoken as he leaves a room Sanders has just entered) have the ring of base metal, and the reader may share his exasperation:
“So your angstrom figures for carbon are inadmissible. Look back at the IUE spectrum.” Then he brushed past me, looking peeved.
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SOURCE: Montrose, David. “And If Thou Wilt, Remember.” Spectator 277, no. 8775 (21 September 1996): 54.
[In the following review, Montrose argues that Distance is not as strong as Thubron's previous novel, A Cruel Madness.]
The protagonists of Colin Thubron's more recent novels—A Cruel Madness (1984), Falling (1989), and Turning Back the Sun (1991)—were tormented by that ambivalent mixture, memory and desire. Each hankered after the irretrievable: a lost time, a lost woman. At the start of Distance, Thubron's narrator has lost even remembrance of such things. Edward Sanders, a 30-ish astronomer, emerges from a fugue state to find himself alone at a restaurant table in a town he does not recognise; his last two years are blank. The nearest hospital diagnoses retrograde amnesia caused by ‘something intolerable.’ Ascertaining the nature of that something provides the novel's mainspring.
As predicted, the missing pieces soon begin to return, earliest first, in erratic spurts, progressively drawing closer to the origin of Edward's trauma. On the way to that denouement, Thubron maintains and manipulates suspense with notable finesse. From the outset, Edward is hazily aware of ‘her’: a woman, central to his existence, of whom all knowledge falls entirely within the blank. Guided by the address on an envelope, he makes his way to an unfamiliar cottage on the Dorset coast which he shares, it transpires, with a painter called Naomi. A note in the kitchen tells him she is off on a commission. Narrator and reader await Naomi's homecoming with much expectation, only to discover—a dextrous touch of authorial misdirection—that she is not ‘her.’
Meanwhile, Edward has learned that the blank encompasses the death of his mother, remembered as a vigorous ‘monolith.’ Days pass before the awful particulars of her physical decline—wasting away from hepatic cancer—jolt back into his consciousness. He recovers, too, the identity of ‘her’: Jacqueline Everard, a colleague at the observatory. He knows they were lovers. But a ‘desert of 14 months’ remains. What became of their affair? Of her? To preserve these mysteries, Thubron must flirt with implausibility. Naomi and Edward's father clearly have information, but say nothing, believing that his memories should be allowed to return unaided; Edward, obsessed with uncovering the truth yet nervous at what it might be, does not push them, does not visit the observatory (he is on sick leave). As memories of Jacqueline surface, a picture develops of that Thubron speciality—a lop-sided relationship between a man who craves engulfing passion and a woman incapable of the same abandonment. An outline of how matters ended is visible from several chapters away, but the specifics, as they materialise, sustain interest.
Thubron brings remarkable verisimilitude to a subject that is often mishandled—all those inept thrillers both between covers and on the screen. Also praiseworthy is the way secondary events tie in with the essentials. Edward travels to see an old friend who has joined an Anglican friary. He has found in religion what Edward sought in love (alas, as Borges observed, to love is to worship a fallible god). Recollections of an Indonesian holiday with Jacqueline (where the hand of Thubron the travel-writer is evident) augment the theme of suppressed memory: the locals will not recall the purges of 1965, when a million people were killed. An affecting portrayal of Edward's father is especially material. Desolated at his wife's death, he is now learning to cope with her absence; there are even hints of impending remarriage. A similar future, the implication is, awaits Edward: without Jacqueline, with Naomi. Despite these and other merits, however, Distance cannot supplant A Cruel Madness as Thubron's finest work of fiction. Still, most novels of the past decade or so haven't outdone it either.
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SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Return to the Wild East.” Independent (2 October 1999): 9.
[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott argues that Thubron's descriptions of natural landscapes in In Siberia are “exceptional.”]
In the early 1980s, Colin Thubron drove his Morris Marina across the Western face of Brezhnev's bankrupt Soviet Union. His account of that visit, Among the Russians, began “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember.” Although that predictable Western apprehension melted during encounters with the Russians themselves, he was chased out of the country by the KGB.
In that first account, Siberia was “the forbidding heart of this whole continent” and lent an “invisible enormity to everything.” Almost 20 years later, after two further explorations of Asia—Behind the Wall and The Lost Heart of Asia—Thubron confronts his realm of “indelible fear” in this new book [In Siberia].
Siberia is a place of legendary bleakness and mystery. Once seen as “Russia's Wild East,” where serfdom was illegal even under the Tsars, it has long been the “limbo” into which Russian autocrats poured “the viral waste of an empire—criminal, vagabond, dissident.” Siberia became a place of labour camps or gulags that people—including writers like Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam—were sent and from which millions never returned.
The data on Siberia are all astonishing. It's the largest country on earth—larger than the US and Western Europe combined. It has the world's deepest lake, Lake Baikal, which contains a fifth of the planet's fresh water and a unique ecology. Siberia harbours significant proportions of the earth's gold and diamonds, as well as ruined populations of indigenous people.
The 500,000 Yakuts, for example, represent half the population of Sakha, an area the size of India. Kolyma—once an autonomous region of death camps policed by the Interior Ministry—is “vaster than Mexico.” Even Birobidzhan, the virtually abandoned “Jewish homeland” near Vladivostok, was larger than Palestine.
Thubron is looking for something else, however. In Kyzyl, near the Mongolian border, an obelisk marks the geographical heart of Asia—which Thubron finds absurd. However, as he stands there, “confused, unable to leave,” he remarks that “the land looks irreducible, like bone.” It is this that he attempts to articulate and which has “consumed” his adult life.
Thubron is a novelist who travels. His travel books are personal and observational, sceptical not mythologising, and full of questions not answers. His writing is intelligent, reflective and evinces a quietly singular style. The latter is glimpsed in phrases such as “Gentian eyes” or “slow, incontinent wonder,” but stretches over paragraphs which introduce deeply absorbed reading into his experience of what he calls “the precious commonplace.”
The commonplace really is precious in Thubron's hands. Everyday encounters, gathered impressions and an equal receptivity to archeologists and homeless drunks enable but also anchor his speculations. So, although he began by looking for patterns, the place became “diffused and unexpected as I travelled it. Wherever I stopped,” he admits, “appeared untypical” and refused to reveal an “essential Siberia.”
But Thubron is driven by more than the commonplace. He identifies with the “stubborn needs and passions” of religious pilgrims near Omsk because, though agnostic, he hungers for belief. He searches for symptoms of new faith or identity on this journey because “I couldn't imagine Russia without destiny” and “faith would paint a future.” He becomes gloomy when he doesn't find it.
However, the most powerful passages in this book concern landscapes and human experiences that bloom with abstractions. In the Arctic Circle where “time slows into aeons, and history becomes geology. People lose their grip on it.” Or wandering the snow fields and murderous mines of Kolyma, conjuring with the vastness of the landscape and his knowledge and feelings about the despair born there. These are the experiences and locales—“irreducible, like bone”—where Thubron is most effective. In these passages In Siberia, already a fine and fulfilling book, becomes an exceptional one.
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SOURCE: Harman, Nicholas. “Vodka, Vodka Everywhere.” Spectator 283, no. 8931 (9 October 1999): 45.
[In the following review, Harman examines Thubron's search for religious faith in In Siberia.]
Under tsars and dictators alike, only Russians were allowed into Siberia, and for Russians the trip was a fate worse than death. Since we won the Cold War all that is changed, and Colin Thubron went there off his own bat. He too found Siberia horrible. It was hard to get around, hard to find somewhere to sleep, hard to find anyone to talk to, harder still to keep warm. But that was not his main problem [in In Siberia].
The myth of travel books is that they are written by people who have been somewhere and are keen to tell others about it. The present reality is that the book is often the motive for the journey, to boil the pots of those who can't make a decent living out of good novels. Thubron, a good novelist, is an excellent travel writer, few better. But like a biographer who finds, after starting work and signing the contract, that his subject is after all quite dull, he has to go on writing as though he is keen on what he writes about. For all his skill, Thubron couldn't.
If he had prepared himself for the journey by reading the economic stuff, he would have known that Russia's failure has broken down its adjacent colonies even more comprehensively than itself. The ‘industries’ and ‘research establishments’ once sustained by slaves and conscripts are gone; absurd collectivisations have destroyed the nomads' lifestyles; those settlers who can leave have left; drink and the devil are swiftly doing for the rest. (Similar results have been achieved, more slowly, in some of our own African ex-colonies, but that's another story.)
Doggedly, Thubron scours Siberia for culture and, particularly, for religious faith. He found very little of either. Among his fellow-travellers on a steamer down the immense Yenisei river was a priest in search of converts, a Polish Melkite (an odd sort of Roman Orthodox), who explained, ‘These people have had seventy years of Satan. Now they're leaving here for anywhere they can find work, for anywhere else at all.’ When a child reacts to a crucifix by asking whether it is real silver, the missionary bursts out, ‘You see, they're stupid. Concepts are beyond them. And unfortunately they drink.’ Indeed they do.
If Christianity is failing, what about the old faiths? Siberia's pre-Russian hunter-gatherers practised the cults known as shamanism, and their forebears transported them a few millennia ago on migration across the ice to the neighbouring continent. Shamans are therefore now fashionable in the United States, as part of Native American history. Thubron, hearing somehow of a people still led by shamans, hitches a lift on an oil tanker to the Entsy settlement of Potalovo. The wretched Entsy have no shamans, the reindeer are almost gone, the fox-fur farm has collapsed, and the only place where a foreigner can find shelter is an empty hospital with a friendly Russian doctor, whose few remaining medicines are in dubious bottles from Bombay labelled in untranslatable Indo-medical English. In a few days, or weeks, a government ship will distribute pensions, and the pensions will be spent aboard the following boat, which distributes vodka. Then (says the doctor) the hospital will quickly fill up.
The journey continues eastwards, and into autumn. In the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan (one of old Joe Stalin's weirder jokes) a few survivors follow Jewish rites, but they may really be gentiles hoping to qualify for emigration. In Buryatia the forms of Buddhism linger on, but its holy relics are no more than a collection of curiosities assembled in a cathedral that the Buryat Christians have abandoned. South of Lake Baikal, on the Mongolian border, live the heirs of the Old Believers, banished there long since for their curious, intransigent and abstemious faith; they have taken to vodka. Most of the Yakuts' frozen mammoths were sent long since to Moscow for conservation, and there is no money to bring them back.
Because Thubron is a fine craftsman he keeps you reading through all this, but it leaves you wondering why. He is pushing 60, and did not deserve the physical hardships of his unsatisfied spiritual quest. Amid the elegant flourishes of his forbidding narrative, the line that reverberates is a casual throw-away: ‘Everything achieved under slavery, it seemed, was being destroyed by freedom.’
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SOURCE: Thomson, Ian. “A Thaw in the Gulag: Where Has the KGB Gone?” Guardian (9 October 1999): 10.
[In the following review, Thomson offers a positive assessment of In Siberia, calling it Thubron's “finest achievement to date.”]
Colin Thubron brings back few souvenirs of his solitary wanderings, but his notebooks are crammed with life stories. From these he fashions a meticulous reportage tinged with poetry. His two wonderful accounts of communist Russia and China—Among the Russians and Behind the Wall—narrated the lives of ordinary people trapped beneath the crust of dictatorship. Classics of the genre, they were written with an unerring eye for human desolation. Thubron's eighth travel book, In Siberia, contemplates Stalin's slave-labour camps and the frozen immensity of Tartar territory. This is some undertaking. Weeds now sprout from the isolation cells and the Gulag watch-towers have grown over with moss. Yet the abandoned sites still overwhelm with their sense of past suffering. My mother, as a Russian Balt persecuted by Stalin, lost friends to the Siberian ice-fields. Among them was the Tallinn lawyer Arnold Susi, a key figure in Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. In 1945 Susi vanished in the deeps of Novosibirsk, a statistic among the millions of Siberian dead.
How is Thubron (a descendant of the first poet laureate, John Dryden) qualified to speak of the Gulag? His previous work, The Lost Heart of Asia, was constrained by a very English sang-froid and reserve. However, this new book is Thubron's finest achievement to date. Almost every page radiates gem-like images and an exquisite literary craft. Few can write with Thubron's poise and style; he is a marvellous story-teller. The culmination of a lifetime's travel in far-flung Soviet lands, In Siberia is also a restless personal quest. The former USSR has consumed much of Thubron's adult life: was it worth it? In this refreshingly candid account, tantalising details emerge of the author's teenage years in Canada where his father was military attache. We learn that Thubron is unmarried, childless and (at almost 60) well past the terminal age for the average Siberian male. Beneath the mandarin prose lies a death-haunted personal narrative.
For much of his 15,000-mile journey, Thubron is light-headed with amazement. Where are the KGB? In the Brezhnev years when Thubron explored Russia in a decrepit Morris Marina, his notebooks were confiscated by government spooks. (To lose a passport is the least of a travel writer's worries: to lose our notes is a nightmare). Fifteen years later Thubron is now free to meet anyone he wants in Siberia. The harrowing immensity of the place eludes easy description, however. Rather than explore its geography, Thubron chooses to travel down the strata of Siberian society, recording the changes that have occurred. This is Thubron's unique gift to modern literary travel; he was among the first to abandon conventional travel narrative and focus instead on chance encounters with the people. Thubron still is a magician in this field.
Rasputin lookalikes, religious shamans and Gulag survivors all create an enduring image of Siberia that is less a country than a strange region in the mind. Named after the Tartar sibir (sleeping land), Siberia is bigger than the United States and western Europe combined. Where is its heart? Post-communist Siberia is in perilous upheaval, simmering in a stew of uncontrolled private enterprise, orthodox fundamentalism and booze-inflamed nostalgia for the Czars. The local mafia grow fat on imported delicacies, while the poor roam hopefully for reindeer meat. But the reindeer pastures were ruined by acid rain and Siberian children drink vodka at the age of 12.
Thubron is less interested in politics, I think, than in finding the unchanging spirit of a place. His Siberia is the same timeless land that Dostoevsky described in his great prison memoir, The House of the Dead. Thubron drinks fermented mare's milk (declining sauteed horse intestines and pine-flavoured elk) like a local herdsman. But his fair skin and wiry physique mean he is constantly mistaken for a down-at-heel Balt. Thubron's epic journey east to Vladivostock passes by the icy graves of ancient Scythians and the world's deepest lake—the mythical Baikal. Throughout, his wanderings are accompanied by a progressive shedding of western prejudice and preconceptions. Siberians are mostly dark-haired but they are not the hirsute descendants of Genghis Khan. The late (though admittedly peroxide) Raisa Gorbachev was herself from Siberia.
Thubron's quest ends in the feared Gulag archipelago round the Siberian city of Magadan, where temperatures can still plummet to -97F. Under Stalin there were brutal maimings, murders and torture here but also unexpected acts of kindness. (‘Cruelty is invariably accompanied by sentimentality,’ the deported Arnold Susi told Solzhenitsyn). Still, it's hard for Russia to conceive that all these political deaths—an estimated 62 million in the 70 years after the 1917 Revolution—were in the name of progress. Colin Thubron has completed a glorious quartet of travel books with In Siberia. Scholarly, superbly written, it will last well into the next millennium.
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SOURCE: Thubron, Colin, and Independent Sunday. Independent Sunday (10 October 1999): 2.
[In the following interview, Thubron discusses his body of work and his career as a travel writer.]
It almost comes as a shock to discover that Colin Thubron is a real traveller. From his writings, it is possible to imagine a kind of poetic aristocrat floating across continents, absorbing beauty and wisdom effortlessly from clouds and landscapes. In fact, he is the ultimate off-the-beaten-track backpacker.
“When I'm researching for a book, I'm not fussed about comfort,” Thubron explains when I ask him how he sustains himself on his journeys. Now 60, he recently spent four months travelling alone through the wildernesses of Siberia [for his book In Siberia], unearthing accommodation and transport possibilities in a land covered by no guidebook. “When you travel out of fascination, of course you push yourself,” he says. “Your own comforts drop away. What depresses me on my trips is if I fail to find that old shaman I want to talk to, not being cold or uncomfortable. In a place like Siberia, discomfort is part of the personality of the land.”
He comes across as a dishevelled public schoolboy, but his travels would challenge the most intrepid backpacker. If there is a chance of meeting, say, a genuine Entsy (an indigenous Siberian), Thubron will not hesitate to disembark at a place like Potalova in the arctic far north, a remote and ruinous fishing village scavenged by wild dogs.
“Yes, Potalova was an absolute hole,” Thubron concedes. “Everyone had some form of malnutrition. The village comprised shacks, half of which had been burnt down by their alcoholic inhabitants. Was I nervous? No. I find an optimism developing when I arrive in a place like that. Obviously there is no guest-house. You don't know where you are going to stay or for how long. There's a chance you might be stuck there for weeks, awaiting transport out. But you feel that, in one way or another, you are going to be all right.”
In Potalova, Thubron ended up taking a bed in the local log-built hospital occupied by victims of drunken knife-attacks. There he shared a room buckled by permafrost with a man who had bound an elastic band around his head to prevent it, he said, from flying apart. But nothing bad happened to him.
“When I'm travelling for a holiday, depressing places depress me. But for a book it's different. The very frightfulness of a place is compelling. The fact that a small town in Siberia is falling to bits tells you something about what has happened to Russia. I'm drawn to things that speak about the history and the culture. Then there is the thrill that this place absolutely doesn't accommodate you. It makes no allowances or concessions for the visitor.” He makes no claims to original research.
He is not making “discoveries” in the old-fashioned sense. “I come to understand the temper of the moment,” he says. “What are people feeling, now that the USSR has gone? That's the kind of thing I want to know. Remote parts of Siberia are almost never visited by journalists. I like to feel that one result of my work is the peopling of maps that might otherwise be blank. You get served stereotypes, but I can paint a human being to empathise with. If I augment understanding in some tiny way, I'll be happy.”
Above all, what has driven him for the past 20 years has been an intense desire to understand, as he calls it, “the part of Asia we fear.” In an age when writers seek ever narrower fields in the desperate search for originality, Thubron, in his past four books (Among the Russians, Behind the Wall, The Lost Heart of Asia and In Siberia), set himself a task of quite colossal ambition: the uncovering, no less, of the Soviet Union and China. No living travel writer would have had the effrontery to try it, let alone been able to pull it off in the way Thubron has.
“Of course, these books are not geographically comprehensive,” he admits. “Nobody could visit every part of Russia or Siberia. And a part of you always worries that you are missing something just beyond the next mountain, which could explain what this land is all about. But you hope your instincts are good as to what is typical and what is not.”
But it is not just a question of good instinct. It is also a matter of meticulous preparation. Thubron has taken the time to learn sufficiently good Russian and Chinese, for example, to be able to conduct insightful conversations with almost any resident of northern or eastern Asia. Russian drunks, Siberian fishermen, Uzbeki poets, Mongolian nomads, Shanghai Buddhists and Cantonese restaurateurs (to name but a few) have all enjoyed shooting the breeze over the years with this remarkable Englishman.
“For me, travel has nothing to do with escape. Most of the world lives out there in Asia. To travel is to meet the world, not to escape it. Staying in my cosy flat in London—that would be escapism,” he adds, “which is also why I travel alone. Being alone makes you more vulnerable. It also makes you more sensitised and more approachable.”
Given such compulsive wanderlust, it is hard to believe his protestations that he has no idea at present where to go next. India he rules out on the grounds that it would be far too complex. Iran would be backward-looking (because he wrote several books about the Middle East in his youth). Tibet would be too depressing—though afterwards, it occurs to me how odd this sounds from a man whose latest work finds its conclusion in a Siberian death-camp frozen in the wastelands. The only certain thing, he tells me, is that there will be “another trip.” I remember that I am speaking to a man who travels for fun when he is not travelling to research a book.
Is Thubron just an old backpacker then? He smiles modestly. “I never really got into that scene. I went to the Pudding Shop in Istanbul. But I have an allergy to that kind of introversion; to the idea that you can learn something about yourself by travelling to Kathmandu. That is what leads people to ignore the culture of the places they visit, using it and often despising it, rather than trying to understand it.”
And that—as well as being the greatest travel writer of his generation—is what separates Colin Thubron from your average hippie.
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SOURCE: Reisz, Matthew. “Where Time Goes in Circles.” Independent Sunday (24 October 1999): 12.
[In the following review, Reisz discusses the disillusionment and lack of hope that Thubron describes in In Siberia.]
In parts of Eastern Siberia, writes Colin Thubron [in In Siberia], the “snow-glazed desolation” of the forest is “over a thousand miles deep from north to south, and the suffocating closeness of its trees, crowding out all distances, any perspective, has driven people literally mad. Magnetic anomalies can doom even a sane traveller here, while his compass-point swings uselessly.” Much of this astonishing book evokes a world so vast, so lacking in landmarks, that it is easy to see why many are driven to madness, to excessive drinking of vodka (or machine oil), to nostalgia, nationalism or religious fanaticism.
Lake Baikal is full of weird evolutionary leftovers: sturgeons carrying 20 pounds of caviar; red-eyed shrimps packed 25,000 to the square yard “fondling the dark with preposterously long antennae”; and the fatty golianka, “some so translucent you can read a book through them.” And, unlike the mammoths freed from the permafrost, many of Siberia's human inhabitants seem trapped in a past not yet ready to release them. A drunken illegitimate descendant of Rasputin struggles to create something from his heritage. An academician living near Khrushchev's now dilapidated “city of science” in Novosibirsk pontificates about the origins of civilisation: “Intelligence emerged in several regions simultaneously—in Siberia, in Africa, in Central Asia. Siberia was first! … Darwin, you understand, is nonsense.”
In Siberia starts in Yekaterinburg, where the last Romanovs were put to death. Dull in life, they have now become the centre of a kitsch cult. “They are already saints!” one devotee exclaims. “In the church where I worship, the Mother of God has told John the Baptist that they are her favourite ladies-in-waiting, her favourite children.”
As Thubron makes his way east, with side trips to the Arctic Circle and towards the Mongolian border, he encounters much more ersatz religion. A shaman asks him about a London he has only read about (“How do you see in all that fog?”) and hopes he will return next year with some walrus essence. Old Believers, long persecuted for minor liturgical heresies like honouring the Trinity with a double (rather than a triple) Alleluia, struggle to re-assert themselves. A priest performs a clumsy makeshift Mass on the boat crossing Lake Baikal: “In lieu of the Holy Gospel, he processed with an uplifted service sheet; in place of the chalice (since no one was expected to take communion) he cradled an egg-cup. His trainers squeaked with each duty.”
Most of this seems to reflect the desperate longings of an older generation disillusioned by the failures of communism, and of their children who never believed in anything. An elderly woman living in a remote forest blots out all Russia's current problems with soap operas and laments: “In Brezhnev's years we were told that America was sinking. Now half our people are out of work, and the Americans all seem to live in Santa Barbara.” An ageing historian struggles to view the whole Soviet era as “a long, tragic falling-off from a pure Socialism which she cannot quite locate in time.” Birobidzhan, the bizarre “Jewish Autonomous Region” established in the 1920s as a rival to Palestine, is now taken over by Chinese market traders “watchful and needle-hard. They lived on nearly nothing, crammed noodles into their mouths where they worked, camped all together in cheap tenements … Their Russian competitors, by contrast, were comfortable and slow.”
Birobidzhan is close to the Pacific coast but, instead of making direct for Vladivostok, Thubron turns north again one last time, towards Yakutsk and the former death camps of Kolyma. This may sound a bit contrived—like writing a travel book about Europe which ends in Auschwitz—but the impact is almost overwhelming. A Jew called Fedor takes him to dungeons, still stinking but now knee-deep in water, where prisoners “used to press the bodies of the dead against the walls to insulate themselves from the cold.” Yuri, a young geologist, shows him the radioactive slave mines. His grandfather had been sent to the camps for five years for making a silly (and not even subversive) joke about Stalin. Perhaps two million people were worked to death here.
Distraught, Thubron cries out: “Whatever it's like now, things are better … You'll never go back to that.” But Yuri is unsure: “We're not like you in the West … With us, time still goes in circles.” Can this really be the last word? “His hand, which was tracing a circle, now tentatively lifts. ‘Maybe we spiral a little,’ he says, ‘a little upwards.’” In Siberia is full of horror, many flashes of humour and a deep humanity, but of hope there are only the faintest glimmers.
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SOURCE: Pryce-Jones, David. “From Fear to Pity.” National Review 51, no. 24 (20 December 1999): 64-6.
[In the following review, Pryce-Jones examines the change in Thubron's attitude toward Russia between Among the Russians and In Siberia.]
Colin Thubron first visited the Soviet Union at the height of its powers, in the closing years of the Brezhnev era. Among the Russians, the travel book he then wrote, begins with the unforgettable sentence, “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember.” It was an appropriate Cold War response. The Russians were then a universal menace. Whatever were they asking of themselves, and of us? How could they unleash such violence, to such deliberately murderous ends? These were questions quite as much human as political.
A marvelous reporter of detail that builds into the big picture, Thubron sought only humdrum encounters with humdrum people. He speaks enough Russian to pass as some sort of a native, perhaps an Estonian.
The scent of something gangrenous infused the whole trip. Death was in the air. As a key to the upheaval that was about to happen, that travel book of his was truer than innumerable editorials and learned books about the permanent achievements of Communism.
After the collapse of the Soviet empire, he visited the Muslim republics of Central Asia that had just recovered their independence. Communism had cut these people off from their past so thoroughly that they now had almost no identity at all. As he described it in The Lost Heart of Asia, they were going through the motions of existence like dream-figures disconnected from reality.
Now comes [In Siberia,] a third book in this extraordinary series of Russian travelogues. Siberia! It is an area larger than the United States and Europe combined, with immense rivers, Lake Baikal, endless forest, the taiga, and permafrost. But however impressive the geography, Siberia means Gulag, a perpetual symbol of the degradation and brutalization that was Communism in practice. Siberia stands for hell on earth.
As before, Thubron approaches his great theme through language. Page after page contains examples of the exact word needed to convey observation. Here is a lumbering train “munching away all night at the twelve hundred miles to Skovorodino.” Here is a man whose face is “knotted around a spread nose.” Or a woman: “Bulging cheeks had squeezed her eyes and mouth to pampered dots.” The skyline at one point “crinkles” and streams “come slithering out of forested hills.” Crumbling Stalinist architecture seems to be “moaning,” and his own books start “mewing.” The reader can trust a writer like this.
In the course of the journey, Thubron caught trains, buses, and airplanes. In his head was a great deal of learning. He knew about the long-ago Scythian and Mongolian cultures, from which remained a mummified Ice Princess and artifacts preserved in half-derelict provincial museums. Then came czarist conquest, and a Wild West style of fortune-hunting and boom. Eccentric foreigners left their mark, including a German polymath in search of flora and fauna, and a French engineer who put up a massive bridge. English missionaries arrived, but they failed to make a single convert. In rebellion against Russian Orthodoxy, schismatics like the Old Believers fled here to worship according to their beliefs.
Communism wrenched aside all natural development. First to suffer were the many indigenous peoples and tribes known mainly to ethnographers. Once fishermen and herders of reindeer, they had the skills to survive the climate but were defenseless against the life forced on them by Marxist ideology. Thubron crosses the paths of tragic handfuls of these native Siberians, deprived of their own culture but neither Sovietized nor Russianized, drinking themselves into oblivion.
The last czar and his family were shot down in a house in Yekaterinburg, but the building no longer exists. Thubron shared a meal with a drunk who was squatting in its overgrown garden. Not so far away was Pokrovskoye, where another drunk claimed to be a relation of Rasputin, once the last czarina's confidant and the place's most famous inhabitant. Houses in other remote villages where Lenin and Stalin were exiled are now also semi-derelict museums.
Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, and other Soviet-built cities are largely man-made disasters, the public buildings and apartment blocks so many instant ruins, and all enveloped in pollution. Human activity appears to be suspended indefinitely. Akademgorodok was once the center of Soviet science, with a score of specialized research institutes. Now there are no programs, and salaries are not paid. A once powerful general secretary complains in fury to Thubron, “I don't know what policy drives our government, or even if it has one.”
A few aged Communists defend the past: Agrippina Doroskova, for one, a 90-year-old crone who is writing a four-volume local history in praise of Lenin and Stalin. Her message is that “Russia will be victorious.” More numerous and more representative, the young are pessimists. Svetlana, a teacher, explains that now “I have nothing absolute to teach.” Anyone who wants a life, says Shamil, has to get out of here. Bitterness and disillusion receive no answer.
The passage through the wreckage of Communism begins to afflict Thubron himself. “Everything achieved under slavery, it seemed,” he comments, “was being destroyed by freedom.” In search of faith, of hope, or of anything that might drive away the deepening despair he sees on so many faces, he joins a party of barrel-chested ladies on a pilgrimage to a monastery that monks are in the process of building on the site of a labor camp. In Komsomolsk a former KGB officer has turned into a Baptist minister, preserving his old uniform safe in a cupboard. A Polish priest is making Catholic converts as he travels up and down the Yenisei River. Some villages of Old Believers survive, and here and there in the wilds are shamans and Buddhist lamas as well, again more like dream-figures than real survivors.
Three times Thubron goes to the far north, to the extremes of Gulag, to Vorkuta, to the mines of Dudinka, finally to Magadan and the Kolyma complex of camps, including Butugychag, where corpses had to be stacked, as they could not be buried in the permafrost. It is possible to pick a way through the camps, the rotting barracks, and the cells with frozen walls where a prisoner would die within hours. Here are burnt-out stoves, broken windows, rusted metal and wire, and the wreckage of the mines and sheds in which millions of innocent men and women were worked to death. The end of the world must be like this.
Imagine Thubron, so English and so solitary, a writer to his fingertips, a lean man with cropped hair, a quizzical expression, and boots that are mewing as he walks and reflects in this landscape of ice and blizzards and absolute inhumanity. He wanted to find some unity or shape to human destiny, and he has done so. Fear of Russia is a thing of the past, and pity for the living and the dead instead fills this book with the purpose and beauty of prayer.
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SOURCE: Thubron, Colin, and Gayle Feldman. “The Art of Traveling Well.” Publishers Weekly 217, no. 9 (28 February 2000): 54-5.
[In the following interview, Thubron discusses how he became a travel writer and how he approaches his work.]
Not all travel writers travel equally well from one side of the Atlantic to the other, even if the subtlety of their observations and seductiveness of their words argue that they should.
The name Colin Thubron resonates far less in America than the names of British and American peers such as Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Jan Morris or the late Bruce Chatwin. Yet in his native England the long, lanky man with the boyish shock of hair, grave face and light voice is recognized as one of the best literary traveling companions a reader can find.
In eight works spanning more than three decades, he's delved into Central Asia and China (The Lost Heart of Asia; Behind the Wall), traversed Western Russia (Where Nights Are Longest) and now, at age 60, has attempted to pierce the depths of Russia's melancholy soul in his latest book, In Siberia, published by HarperCollins (Dec. 20, 1999). In between far-flung sojourns, he's explored wrenching inner landscapes in a half-dozen slim novels—including Turning Back the Sun, Falling, A Cruel Madness—praised by the likes of P. D. James, Cyril Connolly and Anita Brookner. Behind the Wall was a 100,000-copy British hardcover best-seller, and Thubron has received a Thomas Cook Travel Award, Hawthornden Prize and PEN Silver Pen Award.
Harper's Terry Karten published Turning Back the Sun in 1993 and The Lost Heart of Asia a year later (both now available in Perennial) and In Siberia. Thubron's previous books, published by Little, Brown, Atlantic Monthly and Random House, are currently not available in U.S. editions. His British hardcovers are published by Chatto, paperbacks by Penguin. Gillon Aitken agents them all.
PW caught up with this nomadic descendant of the poet John Dryden not in some far-flung corner nor at home in Notting Hill, London, but in an intimate 19th-century townhouse nestled behind the Art Museum in center city Philadelphia. Thubron has spent part of each of the last five years sharing the home of his American companion, Margreta Delgrazia, a Renaissance scholar at the University of Pennsylvania to whom he's dedicated his latest book.
We chat, looking out onto the blustery, frigid street from a small, elegant room whose old furniture and polished parquet could almost be in London—but not quite. It is a little too spare given the English propensity for clutter either cosy or grand. But the temperature in the old house is entirely English: cool, drafty, suited to a kind of conversation native to London sitting rooms of a certain class. Thubron's disarmingly bright smile warms the room, unexpectedly radiating a generous, even vulnerable friendliness unusual in a man of his background. Easy, now, to understand how he wins a stranger's trust during months of chance encounters on the road.
He never attended a university, but is an old Etonian, and in 1950s England that was passport enough. His father, a military attaché, was posted to Canada, then to America in the late 1940s. Between the ages of eight and 12, Thubron crossed and recrossed the Atlantic on his own to visit his parents for holidays. That gave him “an early physical love of movement and pleasure and excitement in travel,” he confides.
However, the “love of writing,” he says, “came even before the love of travel. As a child, being descended from England's first poet laureate was a very grand thing. It was important to me that writing was something respectable and splendid.” As a teen, Thubron recalls, “I imagined being a writer meant being a novelist.” Now he professes “two different identities, coming from two different parts of myself.”
The fiction Thubron describes as “rather severely constructed.” Falling takes place in a prison, A Cruel Madness in a mental hospital. “The novels are autobiographical in feeling—but not in fact,” he hastens to add. “They arise from areas of emotional experience that are personal to me, and to some extent they're reactions against the travel books.”
Thubron's fiction is decidedly “British” in sensibility: concise and restrained even when exploring intense emotion—one reason perhaps why it's little known in America. Why the nonfiction hasn't caught on is the greater mystery. Expansive and descriptive as it meanders through big cities and tiny backwaters, it diverges into character sketches, historical digressions and stories of all sorts. A civilized intelligence, poetic immediacy and authenticity of feeling mark novels and travel writing alike.
After Eton Thubron worked for four years in publishing, first at Hutchinson in London and then from '65 to '66 at Macmillan in New York. In between he had begun to travel. By his mid-20s he had made a film for the BBC in Japan, and at 27 wrote his first book, Mirror to Damascus. In those days, inspiration came from the “enchantment, the limpid and yet economical poetry of Freya Stark” and “the sheer robustness and delight in sensuous detail” of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Of his contemporaries Theroux, Raban and Chatwin, Thubron admits to “being conscious of and in different ways admiring—but not entirely so!”
A young writer can't live on words alone, and in the mid-'70s Thubron wrote four books “for the money,” two of them, The Venetians and The Ancient Mariners, for Time-Life in Alexandria, VA. It was an introduction to a totally foreign editorial culture. “In the assiduous desire for accuracy, the editing ended up producing an absolute garbling of the writing,” Thubron laughs. Several years later he briefly hired out his pen once more, but this time to happier effect working at the Bookseller in London.
In both traveling and writing Thubron eschews the easy and exotic in favor of more difficult terrain. Survival requires “a tough constitution and very strong stomach. I travel to do a job,” he says, “and the things you expect of yourself are quite different from when you're on holiday. You can't take notice of the fears of the local people when they tell you, ‘Don't go there.’ If you don't go to extreme places, you haven't done justice to the country. And as long as you're getting good copy everything's fine, even if bad things are happening.” But some of that “good copy” is obtained at a very dear price indeed.
In Siberia describes how, for lack of transportation, Thubron is forced to spend three weeks in a place called Potalovo. It becomes a stay in hell. Toward the end, when he sees his face in a mirror there, he thinks he's looking at a Russian tramp peering through a window. The disorientation and wear and tear he has experienced render him literally unrecognizable to himself. “Confusedly I try to collate the inner and outer person,” he writes. “I wonder if the mirror is distorting. If it isn't, something else must be. The face looks anxious. … I turn away, disowning it.”
The confidence to “go there” and ignore sensible warnings to the contrary Thubron attributes to his very “English” upbringing—about which he is also deeply conflicted. “An Arab once told me that the English, having no hearts, were always searching for them elsewhere,” he remarks about a third of the way through his Siberian journey. Similar musings punctuate his other narratives.
When PW mentions this, he is silent for a few moments before replying: “The Englishness Eton represents is something I disliked. In the late '50s Eton promulgated a cult of your own personality above everything, the cult of an effortlessly superior ‘casual man’ who was taught not to care too much because caring was bad form. Yet I was obsessively caring and still am. My characters are obsessive in the novels.
“On the other hand,” he continues, “I benefited from the independence that Eton inculcated. It is that sense of entitlement that enables English travel writers to go with a surety that things will be all right and a confidence in their own perceptions.”
How and why does he choose his destinations? “I wish I knew,” he replies with a wry smile. “With the early books, I suppose it was a young man's romantic curiosity about Arab urban life, the lure of a civilization not hopelessly out of reach of Western civilization.”
The motivation to visit Russia and China was different. “In 1978 I was in a car crash and fractured my spine. During the months of enforced leisure, I dreamt grandiose travel dreams. I wanted to approach the lands I had always been taught to fear.”
Thubron's first book about Russia, Where Nights Are Longest, describes a 10,000-mile solo car journey across Brezhnev's U.S.S.R., during which he was trailed by the KGB. The book's opening lines make the challenges abundantly clear: “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember. … I grew up in its shadow, just as my parents had grown up in the shadow of Germany. … But I think I wanted to know and embrace this enemy I had inherited.”
In The Lost Heart of Asia he ventured further east, to the Central Asian republics of the former U.S.S.R. But the key to unlocking Russia's most mysterious mythologies was of course Siberia. The land that conjures in Western imaginations either the fearful white wildness of nature or the horrific gulags of Stalinism was for Thubron “irresistible.” Asia and Russia have been his twin fascinations and Siberia combines both. It also “impends through the darkness as the ultimate, unearthly Abroad.” In Mongolian, Thubron tells us, “Siber” signifies “beautiful, pure.” In Tartar, “sibir” means “sleeping land.” His encounters across the one-twelfth of the Earth's land mass that is Siberia make the sleeping land come achingly alive.
He takes us to Serpentinka, one of the many former torture and execution centers he visited. In 1938 alone, 26,000 prisoners died there. Thubron says he “longed to find the Russians outraged at such places, but people seemed in some ghastly way to be accepting. It was like the weather, it was how things were. The persecuted and persecutors were indistinguishable in so many ways. There was no sense of memory being a path to rectitude. The gulag is simply being allowed to rot.”
And the people, both past and present, whom he limns: priests, academics, believers, babushkas, con men, tramps. Jews bound for Israel so cut off from their religion that they pray to Christian icons on their walls. Drunks and lost communities of children who start downing vodka at age 12.
There is no curtain of omniscient objectivity in Thubron's travels. With an elegiac lyricism he shares reactions, sorrows, even moments of personal shame. He writes in the first, second and third person, using the second “to break up the monotony of myself,” and the third for distance. Thubron smiles: “It suggests that the writer puts himself up for judgement in his own landscape. That he's fallible.”
Each book takes three years of his life: a year or so of intensive language learning and research; four or five months in the target country; a year of so of 14-hour writing days. How does he distill all those experiences on the road?
There's an apologetic hesitation. “Whenever a conversation hits me, I make very full notes almost immediately. I don't tell people I'm going to write about them, because I've learned if you tell them it makes them very theatrical. They think it's ordinary friendship, but in fact, you're utilizing them.”
Once a book is published, Thubron says, “I never reread it. They're like distant relations you don't much care for!”
Yet it's clear he cares very much about the people he's encountered on his way. What future does he foresee for Siberia?
“Whatever happens, it will be very slow. I had hoped that the further I got from the bureaucratic center, the more communities would have held together. But the further I went the worse it became: without centralized control, everything was falling to bits. Russia can't get much worse. The people will dig in, wait, be patient—what the Russians are very good at doing.”
And as if to prove that the melancholy hasn't totally overwhelmed the place—or its scribe—Thubron says, by way of coda, “I was never depressed by the Siberian landscape. So much of it was extraordinarily beautiful. And there's something reassuring about that, at least, having survived.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1784
SOURCE: Skube, Michael. “The Silence of Siberia.” Atlanta Journal Constitution (7 May 2000): L14.
[In the following review, Skube offers a brief overview of Thubron's career and discusses In Siberia.]
The image had haunted him, even as a schoolboy.
Pale green on the map that covered the classroom wall, distorted by Mercator's projection, Russia sprawled across 11 time zones and two continents.
“I'd been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember,” Colin Thubron wrote 20 years ago. “Where other nations—Japan, Brazil, India—clamored with imagined scents and colors, Russia gave out only silence.”
Nowhere was Russia more mysterious than in the emptiness known as Siberia. Taiga and tundra stretched for thousands of miles to the Pacific with only the barest hints of human habitation. It was Russia's Elsewhere, a void into which people vanished without a trace. Yet it was also a kind of spiritual preserve. Larger than the United States and Western Europe combined, Siberia was the eternal Russia, untainted by contact with the West.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, foreigners could visit only five towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway, and then only under supervision. “Siberia itself,” Thubron says, “receded into rumor.”
In the late summer of 1997, Thubron strapped on a 20-pound rucksack and set out to experience “a place where white cranes dance on the permafrost, where a great city floats lost among the ice floes, where mammoths sleep under glaciers.”
In Siberia completes a trilogy that Thubron began in 1983 with Where Nights Are Longest, an account of traveling by car through the western part of the former Soviet Union, and continued in 1994 with The Lost Heart of Asia, set in the Islamic republics of what once was Soviet Central Asia.
By car and by rail, by bus and by twin-engine Antonov airplanes that inspired no confidence, Thubron traversed Siberia from the Mongolian border to remote villages in the Arctic north, from the Urals east to the Sea of Okhotsk.
In Komsomolsk he broke bread with a former KGB official who had become a Baptist minister, his old uniform preserved in a closet. In Yekaterinburg he sought out the house where the last czar and his family were executed in a volley of rifle shots; the house gone, Thubron shared a meal with a drunk in the neglected garden. In Vorkuta, at the mines of Dudinka, in Magadan, he wandered over the frozen ground that once was the gulags.
PUTTING PEOPLE AT EASE
Thubron was in Washington recently while on a book tour of the United States, a stop during which he spoke at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. He has put weight back onto the 6-foot-1 frame that is trim for his 60 years. His face is well defined by lines that hint at a gentlemanly ruggedness, but his speech and smallish brown-green eyes betray a gentleness of manner. He smiles disarmingly, and you sense he is a natural listener.
Margreta de Grazia, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, accompanied him to Washington. They have known each other for five years. “Colin puts people at ease,” she says. “They recognize him as kin rather than foe. And he has this ability to look into a crowd of strangers and know exactly who to talk to.”
In Siberia Thubron went about almost unnoticed. “People took me to be Estonian perhaps—tall, gaunt, speaking rather bad Russian.” He tells you this in a London accent inflected with unintended irony.
There are people who think no one in the English-speaking world writes like Colin Thubron. Paul Theroux, V. S. Naipaul and the late Bruce Chatwin, all are better known in the United States than Thubron. But there are writers accomplished in one way or another, and there are others who are in a league of their own. Thubron is among the latter.
If he is still a well-kept secret in American bookstores, it is a different story in his native England, where he manages to be both popular and a winner of numerous literary prizes.
He strikes images as perfect as diamonds, but nothing about his prose is precious. His taut sentences are sinewy with physical detail and driven by a strange lyricism. “The ice fields,” he writes in his opening paragraph, “are crossed forever by a man in chains. In the farther distance, perhaps, a herd of reindeer drifts, or a hunter makes a shadow on the snow. But that is all. Siberia: It fills one-twelfth of the land-mass of the whole Earth, yet this is all it leaves for certain in the mind. A bleak beauty, and an indelible fear.”
At Yagodnoe, far to the northeast, he awakes to a cold dawn: “In this half deserted town my arrival had been noticed. Nobody sane came to Yagodnoe.” He wants to see what remains of one of Stalin's labor camps:
We crunched through its void of snow. Our voices were too loud in its silence. A granite block, bound with barbed wire and a strand of plastic flowers, was engraved to the memory of the “tens of thousands” murdered by the state. It glistened with ice. Beyond it, a trail of mounds and dead-looking shrubs followed the ghost of a track into nowhere.
TRAVELING VERY LIGHT
In his rucksack, Thubron kept notebooks, pens, a toothbrush, a small medicine kit, a change of thermal underwear and little else. His script is quick and no larger than the print in a telephone book. “You learn to write everything down as soon as you can—what a place looks like, what people say,” he says.
“Traveling like that,” he is asked, “how long might you go without bathing or showering?”
For an instant he seems startled.
“That's a very American question, isn't it?” he says. “I think the longest was three weeks when I was doing the book on China (Behind the Wall). When you travel as I do you accept the fact that you're going to be unclean.”
It surprised an archaeologist at the Smithsonian still more that he would go to Siberia, a place unseen by most Westerners, without a camera.
Thubron never travels with a camera. “When you're taking pictures,” he says, “your vision becomes constricted. It takes on this rectangular dimension, and you're always looking for composition and you miss conversation, the shifting, fluid experience that cannot be frozen in a frame.”
Tourists take pictures, proof that they were there but only passing through. The traveler immerses himself in what is alien.
“There's a nagging feeling that drives you on,” Thubron says. “You have a sense of the undiscovered.”
In the far eastern town of Oimyakon, where the temperature once fell to minus 97.8 degrees, he slept in the coldest inhabited place on earth. “In far lesser cold,” Thubron writes in his book, “steel splits, tires explode and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe. As the thermometer drops, your breath freezes into crystals, and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call ‘the whispering of the stars.’
“Among the native people a myth exists that in the extremest cold words themselves freeze and fall to earth. In spring they stir again and start to speak, and suddenly the air fills with out-of-date gossip, unheard jokes, cries of forgotten pain, words of long-disowned love.”
ALL OVER THE LANDSCAPE
He knows a great deal, from geography to mythology to classical literature, without putting it ostentatiously on display. You ask where he studied and he unassumingly says, “Eton,” one of the elite English preparatory schools.
He is a descendant of John Dryden, England's first poet laureate, but was not a particularly good student. “I did a great deal of staring out the window,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be a writer.”
When Thubron was a boy, his father was a military attache with the British embassy in Canada and, later, Washington, and transcontinental trips with his father gave him an early taste for travel. His mother, who is still living, raises donkeys, whippets and peacocks. Neither parent pushed Thubron to go to college.
On leaving Eton he worked as a publisher's publicist, made a film in Japan for the BBC while still in his mid 20s, and at 27 published his first book, Mirror to Damascus. His nonfiction and his fiction, he says, flow almost from separate sources: the one expansive and exploratory, the other tightly compressed and driven by psychological obsession. His best-known novel, A Cruel Madness, is set in an asylum, and another, Falling, in a prison.
“The novels,” he says, “are autobiographical in feeling—but not in fact. They arise from areas of emotional experience that are personal to me, and to some extent they're reactions against the travel books.”
Yet certain themes, in both his fiction and nonfiction, recur—disconnectedness and isolation, the hold of the past, memory bereft of meaning. Thus Siberia, endless in all directions, becomes not only a geographic landscape but a psychological one as well.
A HARD LIFE
In Vorkuta, far to the north, Thubron paints a picture more poignant than the camera could have caught:
A young girl stands in Lenin Square. It is almost deserted. She looks about 15, but her black skirt barely descends below her hips and her stockings stop halfway up her bruised thighs. How many days a year in Vorkuta can she dress like this? She appears pathetically tired and young; perhaps it is her first time. Jobs are hard in Vorkuta. But the palm of one hand is pressed against her cheek, as if to deny her presence here. Then a middle-aged man strolls up and says something. Haltingly, she follows him along the pavement. Her fingers keep slipping behind to pull down her skirt, to no avail. The man hails a car beneath the statue of Lenin, and she climbs tentatively in. By now her hand covers half her face.
In the same city an old woman “paddles her bulk along with rhythmic scoops of her arms, and her cheeks flush with labor.” Inside her apartment, “she sits upright, distracted by the Mexican television drama which has been running every day for a year. She says it's rubbish, but she watches. Her face is oddly delicate on its thick neck, and her eyes cornflower blue. Even now, at 87, she intermittently looks pretty, and in her youth her looks were a dangerous blessing.”
Their lives, bridging past and present, are specks in the immensity of Siberia. Slowly things change—e-mail has reached isolated places—and slowly Siberia emerges from silence and rumor. As it does, the lives of its people emerge, often pitiably. Thubron gives them a reality the map did not reveal, and with it a dignity they've never known.
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SOURCE: Downing, Ben. Review of In Siberia, by Colin Thubron. New Criterion 18, no. 10 (June 2000): 82-4.
[In the following review, Downing argues that In Siberia is an inferior sequel to Thubron's Among the Russians.]
Rudolph, Dasher, Blitzen, and the rest don't come around Potalovo much anymore. The village, located north of the Arctic Circle, was bullied into restyling itself as a reindeer collective in Krushchev's day, but since then the animals' pastures have been killed off by acid rain.
Near Vladivostok, a woman complains that, of the salary owed her husband the previous year, one-half of it went ignored altogether and the other was paid in glass: “Some customers,” she explains, “had paid the firm in sheer glass, so it was just passed on to the employees.”
The above are but two of the dispatches and vignettes, so grotesque as to be half-comical, with which Colin Thubron peppers his new travelogue, [In Siberia,] the latest—and presumably the last—in a series that began in 1983 with Among the Russians (published here as Where Nights Are Longest) and continued in 1994 with The Lost Heart of Asia. Thubron journeyed through Siberia in order, as he puts it, “for a moment to witness its passage through the wreckage of Communism,” and a pretty sight it wasn't. The poisoned rivers, the jerrybuilt apartment blocks sagging into ruin, the people dazed and rudderless and drunk: all the familiar fixtures of post-Soviet life are to be found here, sharply if depressingly rendered. As Thubron formulates it, the bitter irony about Siberia is that “Everything achieved under slavery … was being destroyed by freedom.”
Any voyage through Siberia necessarily consists, in large part, of a ghoulish and supremely melancholy Grand Tour of horror spots, places where the Russian genius for cruelty, both czarist and Communist, flared up with special brilliance. Of these, Thubron's itinerary features two of the most notorious: the coal mines of Vorkuta, “an evil jewel in the Gulag crown,” and the gold mines of Kolyma, where men were reduced to licking wheelbarrow grease for nourishment and an estimated two million perished. Other lowlights include Omsk, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned for four years and where Solzhenitsyn, on his way to a camp in Kazakhstan, was briefly stuffed in a dungeon; Yekaterinburg, where Nicholas II and his family were butchered; and the exile-sites of both Lenin (Shushenskoe) and Stalin (Turukhansk). In Siberia, it seems, not even objects are immune to persecution: the territory's very first exile, Thubron writes, was
not a man, but a seven-hundred-pound bell from Uglich, which rang an insurrectionary alarm on the murder of the imperial heir in 1581. The usurper Boris Gudunov had the bell publicly flogged and its tongue ripped out, and ordered the citizens of Uglich to drag it over the Urals to Tobolsk, where it was forbidden to ring.
More particular to Thubron's account is his obsession—rather perplexing in an agnostic Englishman—with Russian religious faith. Spirituality in Siberia blossomed, he found, under an almost American efflorescence of guises, from the Orthodox church and that of the Old Believers (a dissenting and long-persecuted sect); to shamanism in Tuva; to Buddhism among the Buryats (a Mongol people); and even, perhaps most exotic of all in this context, to Baptism.
In Siberia is distinguished as well by its author's nearly masochistic travel habits. Thubron would, on a whim, peel off into the middle of nowhere and sometimes get seriously stuck there—he was marooned in Potalovo for weeks—but his misery is our gain. His bulletins from these hyperborean hamlets strike just the right tonal balance between disgust at the old system and solicitude for those who groan beneath its rubble. And his prose is a precision instrument, able to conjure up, with a few brisk yet nuanced strokes, the whole atmosphere and sadness of a place:
Space is the sterile luxury of Novosibirsk. In summer it hangs in vacant stillness over the flattened boulevards. In winter it starts to move, and howls between the islanded buildings and across the squares. The city is a claustrophobe's dream. Its roads sweep empty between miles of apartment-blocks and Stalinist hulks moaning with prefabricated pilasters and cornices. As for the people, there are one and a half million of them, but they seem lost in space. They trickle along the pavements to work. You become one of them, reduced. The traffic, too, seems sparse and far away, meandering over a delta of stone and tarmac.
Unassailably well written though it is, In Siberia seems to me a step down from the superb Among the Russians. (The Lost Heart of Asia I've not read.) Thubron's style, whether chastened by age or by the bleakness of his subject, has become terser and less lyrical, with the result that there are fewer striking passages here. Another problem—this one beyond Thubron's control—is that In Siberia, undertaken as it was well after the fall of Communism, lacks the tension and menace that made Among the Russians so tautly immediate. In 1980, when he ventured by car through western Russia, Thubron was dogged by the KGB and had foisted upon him a series of amusingly preposterous official guides. His wrangles with these bossy, unshakable chaperones made for compulsive reading, and so did his encounters, often quite moving, with ordinary citizens who, their hospitality prevailing over their state-inculcated xenophobia, took Thubron into their homes and tried their level best to pickle him (the man must have a Teflon liver still to be alive). In the late 1990s, by contrast, Thubron met with little resistance to his snoopings, and In Siberia is correspondingly slacker in feel. Thubron seems almost excited when, in Yakutsk, the hotel concierge barks at him to register with the local police, whose office he finds littered with rat turds.
Apropos of vermin, HarperCollins has, I can't resist pointing out, once again managed disgracefully to soil a book. Having long since established its mastery of the garden-variety typo, this Keystone press has now hit on a fascinating new way to annoy readers and mortify authors: the misplaced diacritical. Every single mark here is set far too high, so that, for example, the circumflex in “Lancôme” pierces the underbelly of a hapless letter “a” in the line above—a cosmetic flaw, but one reflective of HarperCollins's utter disdain for care and quality. If only there existed a special island in the Gulag archipelago for incompetent publishers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976
SOURCE: Thubron, Colin, and Nicholas Wroe. “Don't Forget Your Toothbrush: A Life in Writing.” Guardian (23 September 2000): 11.
[In the following interview, Thubron discusses his body of work and his career as a travel writer.]
According to travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron, the publishing industry made an exciting discovery in the mid-1970s. “They realised that travel writing could also be literature,” he says, “which was of course very fortunate for my generation. Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban and myself were hyper-praised for a while. All that has now slightly faded, but I do think that travel writing is still in a healthy state.”
One of the key reasons the genre has remained so strong is that Thubron has continued to write travel books. He has published nine in all, as well as six novels. The latest book, In Siberia, gives a lyrical and learned account of this vast and mysterious region, and has again been praised as much for Thubron's literary talents as for his intrepid journeying to impenetrable locations. Looking at his CV, it seems he was always destined to marry a “natural love of words” with nomadic instincts. As the son of a soldier/diplomat, he travelled all over the world to meet up with his family during school holidays from Eton. He also has a literary pedigree, being a distant relative of the 17th-century poet laureate John Dryden. “My mother's maiden name was Dryden,” he says, “but he didn't have any immediate family so I'm more of a collateral descendant.” At school Thubron remembers other boys reading Biggles or Bulldog Drummond, while he always preferred to write “bad poetry.” He then became a publisher, but treated his job as a staging post on his journey to becoming a writer. The career change was duly made when he took a year off to live in Damascus.
“I had been fascinated by the inland cities of Syria for years,” he says. “I suppose I chose Damascus as a subject partly because it had been so little written about. But it was a work of love, really. I had no idea whether anyone would publish it.” He says that while he admired Freya Stark for “the poetry of her writing,” and Patrick Leigh Fermor “for the robustness of his descriptions,” it was a fascination for the places themselves that inspired him, not for the people who had written about them. He went on to write another three books about the eastern Mediterranean, and he also began to write fiction.
His first published novel, The God in the Mountain, came in 1977 when Thubron was in his mid-thirties. He freely acknowledges that his fiction doesn't strike many people as the sort of thing a travel writer would produce. “They are often set in enclosed places. I've used a mental hospital, a prison and inside someone's amnesiac head,” he says. “They are anti-travel books, if you like, but they give their voice to something in me that a travel book can't. In travel writing your principal fascination is with something outside yourself. With fiction you can much more give voice to your personal life, however heavily disguised, and to all sorts of inner feelings and compulsions.”
Having written about Cyprus, Jerusalem and the Lebanon, Thubron ventured further east in 1980 when he travelled around Brezhnev's Russia in a car for his book Among the Russians. He then went behind the bamboo curtain to explore China in Behind the Wall. “I suppose one motive was that I wanted to approach those countries that we in the west had traditionally been brought up to fear: the Russian bear and the yellow peril. But while I wanted to go beyond journalistic cliches, it wasn't an evangelical mission or anything like that. It was more instinct and a desire to satisfy my own curiosity. I wanted to humanise the map.”
It has been widely noted that Thubron doesn't push himself to the forefront of his own travel writing. “One of the reasons I seem to retire a bit in the travel books is an anxiety not to push my prejudices too far,” he explains. “I do try to subdue or smother my prejudices, although I know you can't do this entirely. You can't really ever pretend to be a disembodied voice of authority. This is particularly true in China. Our whole history and frame of mind is so different to that of China. It is impossible to shake the habits of western mind.”
When he went to Siberia he was interested to see how deeply the changes that have transformed the old Soviet Union had penetrated. “This is the part of Russia that is most distant and least reported on, and I wanted to see how small communities were faring. Perhaps naively, I hoped to find that things had survived better than they had done. I thought Siberia, with its traditions of robust independence, might have fared better than other areas of Russia. But I found that this wasn't so.”
The practicalities of his work have changed little since he went to Damascus. He writes longhand in notebooks, “which means the level of panic about losing them increases as a trip goes on,” he laughs. “I write down everything I know I will forget after a few months. You can remember the general look of the landscape or the broad outcome of a meeting. But you forget the exact expression that someone uses or their intonation. That's what gives life to a description.”
He then returns home to London to write it all up. He is currently working on a novel, and says that often happens after he completes a long journey. “When I finish a travel book I want to write some fiction. Equally, after writing a novel I want to go out, meet a billion Chinese people or something like that.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708
SOURCE: de Falbe, John. “Haunted by the Incas.” Spectator 289, no. 9075 (13 July 2002): 39.
[In the following positive review, de Falbe praises the “marvellous vividness” of To the Last City.]
Colin Thubron's reputation as a travel writer is so high (and deservedly so) that his novels often get forgotten in discussions of his work. This is a shame because they are extremely good, and because the two bodies of work illuminate one another. To the Last City, Thubron's new novel, is a characteristically delicate, artful construction, which has at its core an interior journey that is signalled firmly in the opening sentences:
As they descended towards the ravine, the mountains rose to meet them. They were entering a solitude deeper than any they had imagined.
Set in the heart of the eastern Andes, a ‘very hard country’ according to the mestizo guide, the book describes five Europeans on a fortnight's trek to the Incas' last city, Vilcabamba. Robert, a middle-aged journalist, is the only one of the group with some knowledge of the Incas, but he is troubled by their lack of writing. He regards this absence as a mystery to be solved, understood, possessed. ‘The need to find meanings, finding no outlet in words, had expressed itself—he was quite sure—somewhere else.’ Convinced that the trip to Vilcabamba, where the Incas made their ‘last effort to perpetuate themselves,’ must yield a solution, he expects to make a serious name for himself with a book about them. Camilla, his wife, feels no such internal pressure to project her own demands on the Incas: she realises for herself how ‘the landscape stood like paintings in their doorways’ and ‘sensed this reverence.’ According to Francisco, the young Spanish seminarian, there is something ‘deep and firm’ in her, whereas Robert's interest makes him ‘wince.’ Francisco carries with him an Inca mirror, a ‘quartzite disc’ which he inherited from his brutal conquistador forebears. He is burdened by such acute, morbid shame for what they did to the Incas that he has been unable to continue his studies at home, and his confessor has sent him on this journey as ‘a kind of purgation.’ There is another mirror belonging to Josiane, a beautiful, vacuous young French woman. To Camilla's disgust and ‘astonishment,’ Josiane keeps on checking her reflection even in this remote place. Louis, her husband, is a Belgian postmodernist architect who has come on the trek to please his young wife. He quickly comes to hate it all.
The guide observes near the outset, ‘These people understood nothing of this land. Their baggage included chocolates and cosmetics and cellular phones’ … ‘This land is empty … Its soil was bitter.’ A parallel description could apply to the characters' souls: the ground is barren, and they are ill-equipped to understand themselves. Failing to find any Inca form of expression, Robert loses faith in his own power of language and becomes ‘dumb,’ which undermines his own sense of identity. Mirrors, of course, ‘bestow identity,’ and in their different ways Francisco and Josiane both seek self-assurance in their mirrors—even in a pool, like Narcissus. But where Josiane's innocence is in the end the proof of her vacuity and she dies, Francisco finds that his mirror ‘looked unfamiliar’ and, in surrendering the mirror, he gives up the identity which prevented him from becoming a priest. Meanwhile the cynical Louis ‘is wounded in some inaccessible part’ of himself by Josiane's death. Only Camilla emerges stronger at the end: she had no preconceptions and, like Pascal, she has the humility, or courage, to admit that she is frightened by ‘the silence that underlay everything.’
As one might expect, Thubron evokes the landscape with marvellous vividness. It is remote, stupendous and threatening. But for the novel to achieve its full impact we need to feel an equivalent psychological force. The form of To the Last City invites comparison with Heart of Darkness. In Conrad's novel the spectacle of moral collapse is indeed horrific, but the same is not true with Thubron's tormented souls. The comparison is unfair, not least because he may not wish to convey a sense of horror, but the result is that it all seems a little too crafted, too contained. Nevertheless, this is a skilful and compelling novel.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815
SOURCE: Skidelsky, William. “Novel Thoughts.” New Statesman 131, no. 4598 (29 July 2002): 39.
[In the following review, Skidelsky offers a mixed assessment of To the Last City, comparing it to Phillip Marsden's The Main Cages and Yann Martel's Life of Pi.]
In an interview a few years ago, Julian Barnes explained why it had taken him eight years to complete his semi-autobiographical first novel, Metroland. For too long, he felt constrained by the facts of his own life as they had happened. Even though he was writing a novel, he still didn't feel entirely free to invent. Only on realising that the truth was his to embellish had the novel finally taken shape. So plausibly rendered were Barnes's inventions, in fact, that several French journalists wrongly assumed that a scene in the novel, in which the protagonist loses his virginity in Paris, was true.
This summer three novels about travel are published which succeed or fail, to a large extent, on the freedom that their authors grant to their imaginations. Colin Thubron's To the Last City tells the story of a group of Europeans who travel to the “lost city” of Vilcabamba, the last Inca outpost against the conquistadors, which has been subsumed by jungle for 400 years. For the most part, it is an elegant fable. Thubron adroitly examines the confused motives of those undertaking the trek, including Francisco, a Spanish priest, who believes he can atone for the rapacity of his forebears, and Louis, a failed Belgian architect, who is seeking a fresh start in life with his young wife, Josiane.
The dust jacket, however, inadvertently touches on the major failing of the novel. We are told that Thubron (who, besides writing travelogues such as Journey into Cyprus and In Siberia, is the author of six previous novels) “for the first time joins his talents as a travel writer with his gifts as a novelist.” And this is precisely the problem: the book seems trapped between two genres, as if Thubron was unsure whether he wanted to write a factual account or something imaginary, so settled for both. This doubt is echoed in the character of Robert, a journalist who believes he has it in him to write a book about the journey he is on, but who instead discovers that he lacks the ability to “possess this place in words.” Behind Robert's writerly travails, there is a sense of Thubron struggling to come to terms with his own uncertainties. That he opted for a fictionalised account almost makes To the Last City read like a novel by default.
The Main Cages is the first novel by another celebrated travel writer, Philip Marsden. Set in mid-1930s Cornwall, it tells of Jack Sweeney, a young man from a Dorset farming community who travels to the village of Polmayne to set up shop as a fisherman. Polmayne is the opposite of a sleepy village; and Marsden dutifully covers such historical developments as the arrival of electricity and the increasing attraction of the region as a tourist destination. “Rights to potting grounds were divided up along complicated lines of allegiance, decided either by ties of blood or by any one of a dozen tacit fraternities,” he writes.
This plethora of detail has the effect of submerging the novel's central story: the affair between Jack and Anna Abraham, the wife of a local artist. At times, Marsden appears to have forgotten that he is writing a novel altogether. There are numerous potted histories: the appearance of Anna's husband, for example, is preceded by a lengthy explanation of Polmayne's attraction to artists over the years which could have been cribbed from a tourist guide.
How refreshing, then, to read another novel with a nautical theme, but one that avoids the prosaic altogether. Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a riotous imaginative excursion, the account of 16-year-old Pi—the son of a zookeeper—who emigrates from his home in India to Canada in a lifeboat, accompanied by a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Royal Bengal tiger. The reason for this peculiar mode of transport is that the rest of Pi's family—along with their other animals—have drowned in a shipwreck, leaving Pi and his crew to fend for themselves in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Naturally, it is an entirely improbable scenario, but this does not matter, because the telling is so compelling. Unlike Thubron and Marsden, Martel has allowed his imagination free rein. Who, after all, needs plausibility when you've got close-quarter descriptions of ferocious animals tearing into one another (“The zebra was being eaten alive from inside”; “There was a noise of organic crunching as windpipe and spinal cord were crushed”)?
There are many vivid descriptions, and the whole novel is infused with such childlike exuberance that the odd clumsy expression (“I didn't have pity to spare for long for the zebra”) is easy to forgive.