Thubron is a masterful writer. The book would be worth reading for the writing style alone. I've found that with many books I can read at a fairly brisk pace: I move through the words and ideas rapidly, not pondering every single one because it's not necessary for me to do so. I get it all with a quick sweep of my eyes. It's not so much skimming as just...gliding. I couldn't do that with this book. Missing words tripped me up, and I found myself having to go back and read paragraphs (or pages) several times. For instance, here is part of the chapter on Lake Baikal:
I climbed a bluff high above the lake, to an old place of Evenk sacrifice. Beneath me Lake Baikal became an ocean. Its headlands multiplied to the south, fainter and fainter, while all around me the whole northern curve of its water spread kingfisher-blue, edged by a phantasmal range of mountains, sometimes a mile high. All colour, from here, had refined to this drenching blue -- even the blue-tinged white of clouds -- as if blue must be the colour to which all others purified in time.
It is the peculiar clarity of Baikal which elicits this. As the transparent and slightly alkaline water deepens, other colours are filtered from its light spectrum, until only blue, the least absorbent, remains. Lying over the fault-line of two tectonic plates, whose separation is gradually dropping its floor lower, the waters plunge to a depth of over one mile: by far the deepest lake on earth. Its statistics stupefy. It harbours nearly one fifth of all the fresh water on the planet: equal to the five Great Lakes of America combined, or to the Baltic Sea. If Baikal were emptied and all the world's rivers diverted to its basin, they would not fill it within a year.This is exceptional writing, and it's like this throughout the book. I can only think to compare it to eating a chewy candy, like taffy. You can't chew fast: instead, you chew slowly and deliberately, savoring everything about it because you really have no other choice.
Thubron also demonstrates a useful amount of discretion in putting the stories together. This isn't a travel book in the sense of being pure description of locations. Yes, he offers beautifully written descriptions of each place that he visits, but he also gives the reader a glimpse of the people. A very personal glimpse, in fact. He meets people, talks to them, tries to understand them. He reaches out to hear their stories, to make sense of the person who lives in Siberia. This person isn't one person at all, it turns out, and Thubron manages to provide an impressive diversity in describing the inhabitants. How easy to lump them all together as "people in that cold place." And yet how inaccurate that proves to be.
I mentioned the sadness before, but it's worth touching on again. This book isn't full of happy, if I'm allowed to say it that way. It verges on depressing. Thubron visited Siberia in the years after the fall of the Soviet government, and it's clear that things are looking somewhat worse for many people, instead of better. They aren't necessarily sorry to see the oppression of the Soviet decades disappear, but they would really like jobs. And paychecks. And enough food to feed their families. And the chance to save money without inflation turning it into nothing. (One woman tells Thubron that her mother spent years saving 6000 roubles on which to retire. At the time, the 6000 roubles would have been enough to buy a nice car, and then she would have her pension to help her out. Now, those 6000 roubles will only buy her two loaves of bread, and there's no guarantee of a pension.) What most people emanate isn't even unhappiness but rather resignation. There's nothing they can do about it. They might as well just keep going and hope for the best as the political problems sort themselves out. And on the bad days, there's vodka. It sounds like a stereotype, but it appears to have some truth to it.
In spite of the unhappiness, though, there's a surprising amount of optimism from people. So, the government might stink. So, there's not enough money. We're alive; we have good health; we have our children; we have our heritage. And we keep moving forward, keep smiling. The people in Siberia are proud of their past. In so many of the towns and cities Thubron visited, he found a small museum, often maintained at the sheer determination of one person, in which was detailed as much of the past and as many as the artifacts as could be provided. With all of the various ethnic groups across the region, this means that Thubron made a number of museum stops, but in each one there was something fascinating to learn (for him, as well as the reader). What is more, the people are unexpectedly friendly. One night Thubron stops at a small station house in a tiny town that is struggling with fuel shortages. The station master knows that Thubron needs a lift, so he gladly gets on the phone to ask his friends if they have any gas in their cars. It takes a while, but he finally finds someone who does and gladly takes him to his next stop. On another occasion, Thubron runs across a group of mafia who offer to drive him around town. They show him the sights, provide a little editorial about life there, and then drop him off at a place to sleep for the night -- after paying his bill. It's a "Russian gift" to a visiting Englishman. No expectations placed on him in return.
I read this book over the course of two weeks, and I enjoyed taking my time with it. I also read with a computer close by, because I found myself wanting to jump up at the end of a chapter and start searching. These places were all so unfamiliar to me, and here they came alive on the page: Krasnoyarsk, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Butugychag. These names rolled off my tongue (at least in my mind), and I needed to know more: Evgenia Ginzburg, Maria Volkonskaya, Princess Trubetskaya, Sakharov, Shelikhov, Kolchak, and so forth. I spent two weeks learning about a place that had previously just been a big chunk of land on the map. Almost nothing about Russia in general, and Siberia in particular, is familiar to Americans like myself. It's just this huge, distant part of the world with a tongue-twister language and a forbidding climate. Thubron doesn't necessarily make it familiar to Western readers. But I think he successfully makes them want to know and appreciate a little more.
Year of publication: 1999
Number of pages: 285