Monday, April 11, 2011

Colin Thubron's "Shadow of the Silk Road": Book Review

Retracing his youthful trek, this veteran travel writer charts conversations and shares sights. It starts off powerfully in Xian, at the start of the 7,000-mile route. Without photos, his narrative carries the force of a documentary film's record.

Rome at one end and China at the other, so distant, traded in legends. Silk grew on trees; "vegetable lambs" sprouted overnight cotton. A thousand years of commerce, ended by shipping, Mongol invasions, and alternate routes, left much of the settings he passes in ruins. Others, as in the PRC, obliterate whatever charm, devotion, or value remained. "To follow a road is to follow diversity: a flow of interlocked voices, in a cloud of dust." (31)

He listens to many voices, fluent as he is in Mandarin & Russian. Thubron's strength is how he recounts the slow madness of a young wife who ran away before consummating her marriage, Persian men obsessed with female chastity and Western pornography, a shanghaied survivor of the Taliban and warlords, and polite resisters to Communist oppression or Islamic fundamentalism. The author's British identity marks him as target of entreaties opportunists, lonely men, drunken drivers, a Tibetan monk, eager students, and cunning informers, perhaps. He roams at a time when SARS threatens, and when the Iraqi invasion casts him as a representative, unwillingly, of a different type of inhumanity but one that links him to a long trail of such across the road taken by forces under Genghis Khan, the Shah, Khomeini's forces, Stalin, and the original Assassins.

He sums up on his second traverse of this trail what survives and what does not. The cliff temples of Matisi with a thousand miniature Buddhas as murals have been "defaced by Red Guards, each one scratched with an obliterating cross, as if it were a mathematical equation that hadn't worked out." (79) Near Khotan he tells, too fleetingly, of the strange Tocharian mummies with Celtic-like tartans and Caucasoid features in that desert climate. Among the rebellious Uighir, he feels apart: "Thousands of miles from anyone who knows you, you have the illusion that your past is lighter, scarcely yours at all. . . . Dangerously, you may come to feel invulnerable. You fear only your failure to understand or to reach where you are going. Sometimes you are moved by a kind of heartless curiousity, which shames you only on your return home. At other times you are touched, even torn; but you move on." (115)

As this traveler's tale continues, the lassitude and oddness of the journey weighs on him and you. He crosses the "shadow-line" as he flies over, given border tensions, the Kyrgyz-Russian-Chinese frontiers, "where the Chinese world elided with the Turkic-- where Uighir dreams simmered, and domes appeared, and people started to talk about God." (156) His stories of the Kyrgyz passes, full of drinking bouts, harrowing brushes with death, and near-pagan vistas of primeval rawness, linger. Tangerine slopes, apricot cliff, turquoise river, coal-black screes: these beckon a certain breed of native and a visitor able to recount their unworldly power. "Some mountains poured to the river in a liquid-seeming waste, the colour of sewage, while others showed crimson and incendiary beyond them, already daubed with snow." (180)

As he continues, paranoia seems to shadow him and his informants. The Chinese fearful of SARS and foreign presences monitor him; the peoples resisting the Communists or the Taliban, the mullahs or the despotic regimes fear his entrance or take him aside as a confidant. Past the ancient divide of the River Oxus, He in Mazar-e-Sharif watches from a hotel window "the still city, which seemed to be glimmering under water. I felt a light expectancy. This, I thought idly, was how people died: by mistake, imagining themselves bodiless." (221)

Such an existential unease grows as he enters Islamist territory. The Mongols left the places they conquered so ruined that even today, on this highway, forgetfulness appears to be the status quo, as it was for different ideologies but similar purposes under Stalin, Taliban, Mao, the Shah, and Khomeini. Nearing Iran:
"For the last time I follow a track into a village and see again how people live. How a seven-year-drought is draining their fields, their crops, their lives. One quarter of their children never reaches the age of five. The average life ends at forty-three. Then all thoughts about brutality and conscience drain away, and the mystery becomes not cruelty, but compassion: why somebody offers a stranger a cigarette, or turns away from killing an enemy's son." (257)
In Tehran, he finds a clandestine humanism, but even a young filmmaker's search for genuine roots withers. He and some friends went one winter to a village to collect picturesque stories and scenes. Thubron quotes him: "But we found those villages had no memories. No stories. There were no lullabies they sang their babies. The songs they sang were the same as ours." (285) So, their film became: "About how there were no stories. How history had disappeared."

Thubron composes his book filled with such vignettes. He tells many stories even as he shows us how history crumbles and ideology stifles imagination. His book will not be the romantic travelogue that his predecessors might have labored a century or two ago to concoct. It can depress, and we may be startled as the author is by his own mirrored reflection late on, hostile eyes, windburned face, dissheveled attire. He makes no easy end of his journey, and his honesty may wear him and us down, but he is faithful in this manner to telling us what he heard, saw, and felt all the long way from the eerie, policed fastnesses of inner Asia to the calmer, tired shores of ancient Antioch. (Posted to Amazon US 4-4-10)

P.S. See his livelier, if as measured and reticent and for me very moving narrative which followed:  "To a Mountain in Tibet" (brief review at this Amazon link). I reviewed it in detail on my blog  and for PopMatters on 2-2-11.

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