Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Great Journeys: Colin Thubron in Central Asia

The obvious thing to say about Colin Thubron is that he is a wonderful stylist. I am a believer in stating the obvious. He is a wonderful stylist. There are sentences in all of his books that unlock such perceptiveness and compassion that I find myself filled not only with writer's envy but a particular sort of melancholy, the kind that only detailed, lyrical description can produce (in me, anyway):

'South from Samarkand a broad road ran fifty miles to Shakhrisabz, over an outlying finger of the Pamir. Beyond foothills rose a wraith-like curtain of mountains whose pelmet was lost in a cloud. As my crammed taxi started to climb, the crags surged unsteadily about us in the mist. Everything paled, until the web of our splintered windscreen overlay only a water-colour softness beyond. Sometimes the road reverted to a cracked causeway unchanged since Soviet tanks moved down it to Afghanistan in 1979. All around, the mountain-scarps hung in disease-looking palisades of flaking rock. Then we topped the pass and stared down though haze. A sandy fox watched us from the mossed rocks. Nothing else stirred. Half an hour later we arrived in Shakhrisabz.' (p. 187-88)

The unity of this paragraph is created by a simple device, a clear topic of description: the fifty miles from south of Samarkand to Shakhrisabz. Thinking of it this way, you almost feel the author doing a job. We hear his thinking: he wants to describe a section of the journey; it's worth about a paragraph; he can list the following things from his diary. But these two stylistic qualities, the clear topic and the paragraph's functionality, also allow the richness of the prose to be light, easily consumed, and paced. He doesn't labour the point: after all, a paragraph for over fifty miles of travel is hardly slow-going prose. But just to be on the safe side, as if to clear the page of any romance, the landscape comes with a reminder of the colonizations to which is has been subjected.

A stylist, yes, but is Thubron also a great traveller?

The Lost Heart of Asia (first published 1994) is a treatise about the effects of communism in Central Asia, and there is no doubt about Thubron's passion for the humanity that exists beneath the layers of ideology, politics, and power. What marks this as a great journey, though, is the author's willingness to be led astray, both in terms of his itinerary and his views. Have a look, for example, at the movement in chapter 2. We begin with intensely Thubronesque descriptive writing--the view of the Karakum desert from a train window--but, thankfully in a way, we end in the company of a reluctant drunk:

'Whatever happens, I thought, I mustn't sleep. Then I slept.' (p. 50)

Beautiful prose isn't enough to save you from the local spirits. I think that's a very good sign in a great journey.

The book:
Thubron, Colin. The Lost Heart of Asia. Penguin, 1995.