Published by Harper Perennial
When I was in Hawaii (yes, I’m still talking about books I read last year), I was on a Russia kick. I read this, and then I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And I read Grounded, which is partly about Russia. And this one kicked Grounded’s butt, so I’m not sure why it’s taken me 3 months to write a post about it!
Confession: I always thought Siberia was northern Russia…I didn’t realize it was mostly Asian Russia.
Thubron travels east through Siberia, and he relates his experiences along the way. Like Grounded (which I read around the same time), Thubron passes by the obelisk marker.
Grounded: “And there it is. A small white obelisk by the side of the tracks. The train rumbles by it at 50 mph, but I manage to make out Cyrillic letters spelling ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ etched into the stone, with corresponding arrows pointing in opposite directions. There’s nothing else out here but a quiet glade of birch trees” p. 89
Thubron: “Suddenly in our window there springs up the ghostly obelisk raised by Czar Alexander I nearly two centuries ago. It stands on a low bank, whitened by the glimmer of our train. Here, geographically, Siberia begins. On its near side the plinth proclaims ‘Europe,’ on its far side ‘Asia.’ It flickers past us, and the darkness comes down again. And nothing, of course, changes. Because the boundary between Europe and Asia is only an imagined one. Physically the continents are undivided. Ancient geographers in the West (itself an artificial concept) perhaps decided one day that here was Europe – the known – and over there was somewhere else, Asia.” p. 2
This is a good illustration of why I liked this book so much. There are bits of history interspersed in his stories, and interesting tidbits. My only quibble is that, while I loved the fabulous descriptions of people and places, I felt like I was dropped into the middle of the story. Why was he there? What was his motivation for traveling across Siberia (besides writing a book). I never did get a sense of what drew Thubron to Siberia…even if he was just curious, it would have been nice to have a sentence stating that. I kind of like my travel memoirs to come with a sense of purpose, you know? However, I still forgive Thubron, and I’ll definitely be reading more by him in the future. Here are a few more passages from the book:
“I think: this is that primal Siberia – elusive, endless – which lingered like a geographic unconscious behind the eyes of early travelers. Its seeming void was a clean slate to write upon. For centuries it courted hearsay and legend, conjured the ideal, elicited fear. Even its name – a mystical conflation of the Mongolian siber, ‘beautiful,’ ‘pure,’ and the Tatar siber, ‘sleeping land,’ – suggested somewhere virgin and waiting. Hegel placed it outside the pale of history altogether, too cold and hostile to nurture meaningful life.” p. 113
An excerpt from his visit to Pokrovskoe, the home village of Rasputin, where he encountered a supposed descendant:
“As he loped towards us across his vegetable patch, even the truck-driver was taken aback. All the photographs of Rasputin that I had seen sprang to shocking life in his face. He was like a ghastly distillation. He wore the belted peasant smock of an earlier time, and the loose-fitting boots, and his black beard splayed down untrimmed. It was a conscious act of theatre. Greasy locks of hair tangled round his shoulders and divided across his forehead in two bands, and enshrined in this black halo, the remembered face with its heavy nose and pale eyes watched us with a kind of naïve cunning.” p. 20
Do you have a favorite travel writer? Thubron is going on my list, simply for his wonderful descriptiveness.