When he returned he usually brought people with him. I read this book with interest as I have already experienced this world through one man's eyes and his descriptions and now Thubron provided me with yet another view. From politics to the border control, poverty to archaeology and communism to shamanism, Thubron has a good long look at the Siberia shaped, or sometimes carved and butchered by the rise and fall of Communism. The closest I got to experiencing this country first hand was the smell of wood smoke and shashlik on my Dads impressive Russian fur hat and holding the Whale bone earrings from a trader at the Sea of Okhosk and the piece of Woolly Mammoth tusk retrieved during a mining operation in Magadan. Nesting dolls and lacquer boxes smelling of pine are the closest I've got to the Taiga but thanks to Thubron's book I feel like I've gotten another glimpse of a world which I never visited but which shaped my childhood.
Thats Colin on his holidays. But perhaps they were having too much of a good time for Colin?
Thubrons prose is incredible, and throughout the book I found passages describing with incredible accuracy and beauty, things which I had seen during my brief foray into Siberia. 82) I must admit, however, that I was disappointed by the fact that Thubron neglected to stop at Olkhon Island, one of my favorite places on the planet. He mentioned the island briefly, in regards to his trip past it by boat as he crossed Lake Baikal: By noon the far shore has misted away, and as the hydrofoil enters the channel between the western bank and the long, volcanic island of Olkhon, you are sailing over silk. I also found myself wondering about the ease with which Thubron traveled throughout Siberia. Thubron obviously speaks Russian well (or, despite the fact that he claimed to be traveling alone, he had an interpreter one or the other), and I wish he had mentioned how he had learned Russian, and why. My friends and I only went to one city in Russia (Tula) without definite plans as to where we would stay the night, and between a lack of rooms in the city, and the initial unwillingness of the staff at the one hotel in Tula with a vacancy to accommodate foreigners, we almost didnt get a place to stay. I simply worry that someone wishing to travel in Siberia after reading Thubrons work might be a little misled with regards to the ease (or lack thereof) of travel inside the Russian Federation.)
I finish the book and give it three stars, not four, because he casts a pall of pessimism so heavy that it affects my mood when I'm not even reading.
Episode 4 of 10 Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia, and a visit to Akademgorodok, once the brain of Russia. Episode 8 of 10 The author travels by train to Komsomolsk on Amur, Stalin's city of dawn founded by young Communist pioneers.
I was already an adult when I got this copy new; now the pages are so tanned that it looks like it was printed when I was too young to read anything more complex than Topsy & Tim - the instinctive perception having been formed around the same time I acquired the book. (Likewise books that, in my mind's eye, were nearly new actually look scruffy from moves and storage.) This serves to remind, though, that it's about a Siberia which will have changed by now, and gives a context for some of the author's more old-fashioned moments. In the first half I often wished that I'd read it years ago when some of those wouldn't have been quite so noticeable; in the second, Thubron has become so immersed in the place, that he judges less, and more often lets things and people be as they are. Mentally I often crossed out these short sentences or clauses, which left a great deal of very interesting material I was glad to read.) Though even the less tactful descriptions communicated well; they produced a response of "I know exactly what you mean, just wouldn't have used that word". One of the more glaring ones in the midst of some otherwise lovely writing, a woman of a Siberian tribe with dyed ginger hair (the result, I suspect, of an ineffective home bleach job, which Thubron maybe wouldn't know about) "a traitor to her race" ... I understand the feeling, that comes through time and again, that he half wishes he were of such a people with animistic traditions close in time, so he could be really purist from the inside - but even without complicated Russian and Soviet colonial history behind you, you're not always most attached to the culture/s you descend from; otherwise he'd just be an English Francophile. He is subtly condescending about Christian denominations who were having a resurgence post-USSR - again less so in the second half - but at least he isn't dismissive to a New Atheist extent, and still gives space for the people themselves to shine through. The complication of communicating the material in words often left me wishing this were a film made up of mostly pictures and talking heads of local people. Thubron, whilst he rightly gives brief mentions to awful accommodation so readers aren't misled about what it would be like to visit Siberia, can concentrate on the stuff he's gone there to see, not held back by an inability to sleep in bad beds. (I'd much rather meet these people and places that than stop off to go to an opera, as one reviewer suggests he should have for a break.) And the style of writing rather overloads on the epic and sonorous (I frequently heard it as a documentary narrated by Andrew Graham-Dixon) - it often feels like it should be an introduction to something more humorous or mundane which rarely appears, especially in the first half. It's when Thubron is more or less knowingly stuck for three weeks in an impoverished, decaying Northern Siberian village of alcoholics that something changes and he stops always wanting people to feel a certain way about their situations (people are too religious Christian, or not into their folk traditions enough, or not angry enough, being the most frequent implications). (Knowing some people who agree and understand helps one feel less besieged and indignant, I find.) There is so much in here that it's harder to summarise the subjects than simply write a list. It was a place of both transportation and emigration, punishment and fresh, lawless opportunity, like America and Australia to imperial Britain. -Two unrelated women named Stalina if you dont like your name, they make you think its perhaps not so bad after all. -Decemberists & exiles who made the place cultured. Old Believers (another interlock with Crime & Punishment, where Mikolai was one.) He is noticeably less judgemental of religious people by now. Helps that he speaks Russian almost like a native (on a previous journey hed once previously been mistaken for an Estonian). Fears of Russians about a takeover this is something Ive heard recently about contemporary Siberia too. -Throat singing (and circus couple a marketable version of their culture thats a way of preserving bits of it, brings to mind Consuming Race) he hasnt heard it before but since it has become well known over here, Bjork album & even before.
Recently, I read Angela Carter's 'Nights at the Circus' in which a large chunk takes place in Siberia and this led to me picking up this book. It is a detailed examination of a land where people have had everything pulled out from underneath them and a land mass that has been totally raped.
But other Russians would consider her lucky, to have a job at all, to be paid at all (others still go to work even if they haven't been paid for six or ten months or more). For they were not among those sent to the gulags, to places like Kolyma.
Thubron observes much, but you find out little about him. The book is worth reading, but it feels oddly old. Even so, it feels as if his journey was longer ago.
Colin Thubron, CBE FRSL is a Man Booker nominated British travel writer and novelist.