Yesterday Sean O’Neill tweeted about a review of Colin Thubron’s new book To A Mountain in Tibet. That reminded me of an afternoon I spent with Thubron about a decade ago in Philadelphia. He was in town to visit a friend at the University of Pennsylvania and promote his book In Siberia. At the time I was writing about books for the Philadelphia Weekly and I convinced my editor to assign me a piece about Thubron. Unfortunately I couldn’t convice him to run it once the ad pages got cut that weekend. I’ve dug up the old thing here because I think it bears repeating that Thubron is a fantastic writer. It also gives a nice shout-out to Nicholas Shakespeare’s bio of Bruce Chatwin, which never gets enough praise either.
A good travel book is hard to find, while a good travel writer is even more rare. That’s why Colin Thubron’s latest, In Siberia, is such a pleasure. From Yekaterinburg in western Russia to the Gulag city of Magadan in the far east, In Siberia is free from the self-centered musings that fuel the genre’s never-ending supply of Peter Mayle, Robert Kaplan and their respective copycats. It’s travel writing that doesn’t piddle with the author’s personality.
Thubron’s previous travel works, a quartet centered on countries around the Mediterranean and three books about the USSR and China, are narrative maps of his search for countries’ social and spiritual landscapes. “What people trust and where they place their faith have always been a prime motive: what’s happening spiritually,” Thubron said in a pre-book tour interview in Philadelphia last month.
Thubron’s distinctive, highly personal style has few outstanding practitioners to prompt comparison. His walk through Lebanon in The Hills of Adonis is reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s own Netherlands-to-Budapest walk in the classic work A Time of Gifts. And like his late friend Bruce Chatwin, Thubron finds a definite morality in the act of traveling. But few of his contemporaries are capable of remaining so personal yet still so selfless in their accounts.
In conversation, Thubron is kind and gracious, and it’s quickly apparent why he’s able to find favor with people. “I wish to give a picture of a country in normality — how ordinary people live.” He explains. “It’s a rather different kind of search. And so I rely on the insights of ordinary people one meets by chance. When you talk to people, in the end it’s more forceful to have these chance encounters.”
Chance encounters such as his evening with a one-time Gulag exile and present pensioner living out the last of her days in a tiny Siberian apartment. In conversation, Thubron still can’t make sense of her. “Even though she was condemned by Stalin, she was still of the thought that she was doing work. She was bitter that everything she had striven for as a convict was shut down. Of course to what extent [the forced labor] worked is highly suspect. They were so crude and inefficient. But she encapsulated the large group of people who don’t have that outrage. Ethnically, the persecutor and persecuted were the same. What struck one was a terrible understanding of acceptance.”
Where Nights Are Longest, Thubron’s early-eighties journey by car through pre-Perestroika western Russia grappled with the similar theme of unflinching acquiescence to authority. “[Russians are] intent on submitting to a higher power — a willingness to subsume their own identity,” he still argues, even after more than decade and a change in government later. “With the collapse of the USSR it became a prime element of my journey there to see what has replaced this. Communism supplied a framework and rhetoric. With its vanishing I was fascinated to find out what people do. This communism leaked into their lives more than a Sunday ritual and into their personal and public personae.” For many communism had merely replaced the symbiotic relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. “Believing in things subliminally — the unseen, unproven. As if they could create another world independent of harsh facts and inhabit an ideal world.”
By Thubron’s account, the average Russian youth now shrugs at both communism and a resurgent faith in Orthodoxy. “The west has become their Mecca,” Thubron says. “Their aim is to get into business.” For the average Siberian, this isn’t obtainable. “Your ideal is to get to the big city, then western Russia, then the west. One shouldn’t stretch this too much in the case of Siberia because everyone is till so poor. It’s enough to get to Omsk.”
Thurbron plans on following In Siberia with a seventh novel. “I feel rather fulfilled. It sounds a little smug. But the objective and subjective all satisfy some part of myself.”
Nicholas Shakespeare’s eight years-in-the-making biography of travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin has finally been published in the US by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. Of course, Chatwin’s the subject Bruce Chatwin: A Life, but Shakespeare is the star. It isn’t necessary to know a bit about Chatwin for Shakespeare’s work to interest and impress you. His years of research matched with the novelist’s eye (he’s the author of the Dancer Upstairs) brought a much talked about but little known figure to life. And what he brought to life was a surprise to most.
Thubron, a friend of both Shakespeare and the late Chatwin had this to say about reading the biography: “I admired it. Chatwin was a friend of Shakespeare’s and when he started he didn’t know what he was getting into. Chatwin, to me… I saw a man that was intellectually startling and wonderfully anecdotal. And then he’d just disappear from your life. It was clear that he had many lives. What surprised us all was the squalor of his relationships.
“Nicholas says that Chatwin still has stature for him. But, still, it was a desperately sad book. If his interpretation was right, that he was living in so much concealment, then Bruce was a sadder man than the one I knew.”