Colin Thubron, the prize winning (PEN Silver Pen Award, Thomas Cook Travel Award, Hawthornden Prize) author of many travel books, reads from In Siberia to an assembly of spellbound professors and literature students who are gathered at a conference on travel writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
“We waded down its passageways as down a sewer,” Thubron reads. “I lost count of the iron doors awash with stench, the grilles giving on to blackness. Each dungeon was still fixed with twin wooden platforms bound in iron, and might have held forty prisoners. There were twenty such chambers in the basement alone. Their walls were sheathed in ice. Prisoners here, said Fedor (Thubron’s guide who knew a prisoner there), used to press the bodies of the dead against the walls to insulate themselves from the cold.” p. 273
Individuals in the audience tighten their flanks, others draw in breath, there’s a nervous cough. We’re listening to Thubron describe his wintertime visit to desolate and decaying Stalin-era forced labor camps near Magadan in far eastern Siberia. It is difficult to remember that Thubron wasn’t a prisoner in the transit camp, so bleak and painful is the word painting he recounts.
You need an atlas at hand to properly understand this book. Siberia occupies an enormous landmass–the 50 states would easily fit inside with millions of square miles to spare. With three of the world’s long rivers, and Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, gold, uranium, timber and permafrost, the mix of geography and geology as forecasters of destiny permeates the narrative. This spiritual barrenland called Siberia has been the proving ground for explorers in search of fame, the vast closet where the outcasts were swept. The endless stretches defeated the dreamers and the exiles alike. All except those who survived.
Thubron sketches the missionaries and explorers who came before him, the refugees and exiles cast out from the west by rulers from Peter the Great to Kruschev, and probably other Soviet and post-USSR rulers since. They swept the opposition and the detritus of their society off the map beyond the Urals. In the imagination of working stiffs back in Moscow, far eastern Russia holds the same mystique as the American west did 200 years ago or the Yukon and parts of Alaska still hold. To Siberia went the crooks, the dissemblers, the weirdoes, the inconvenient, the too-smart, the too-dumb.
A magnet for melancholy characters, Thubron talks to the drunks and the disillusioned, doctors without hospitals, priests without parishioners, but his humility and honesty show up in the details.
Thubron’s great gift to readers lies in the focused details, the dirty fingernails, tangled beards, and the back slapping, vodka swilling Mafioso. You live in the movie while reading this book. Entertaining stuff for the curious Russophile who may never get to these outposts.
The meaning of siber is “pure” in Mongol and siber means “sleeping land” in Tartar. Thubron traveled during a confluence of seasons, moving across Siberia by train, truck, boat and plane, put on fast forward by nature’s cycles. “For two more days and nights we sailed downriver, while around us the deciduous green turned to bronze, and the birch trees massed along the shores were blacked by pines, and the crimson flares of aspen flickered out. The seasons were speeding up. Within four days we traversed autumn, until the leaves were falling, and a coniferous deadness began to spread.” p. 121. Ultimately the immensity of nature overwhelms human scale and capacity. Only by communal effort can villages prosper in the harsh wilderness.
Travel writer, fiction stylist, Colin Thubron executes a distinctive sense of place in his narratives. For example, in his quasi science-fiction, A Cruel Madness: “the older inmates still call the central block ‘the mad house,’ and sometimes, when the mist pours off the Black Mountains, you might think the whole institution a Gothic fantasy.” And in Turning Back the Sun: “You can never go back. Deep ranges of mountain isolate the town from the sea, and lift across half the skyline.” His ability to convey a sense of people and culture within geography –whether he’s writing history, fiction or his own experience — renders a deeper topography.
In Siberia is seen through the eyes of a hardy traveler willing to go hard seat, hitch hike and live in his clothes. Thubron hints at his underlying unease at these great distances and the legacy of suspicion from Soviet rule. In his other book about Russia — Where Nights are Longest, an account of a 10,000 mile drive through western Russia published in 1983, he watched his back, sometimes afraid for his safety and concerned about reprisals to his hosts. During his mid 1990’s Siberian trip, inertia has replaced bureaucratic zeal; his papers are rarely checked, he moves freely. The constraints are the original shackles of Siberia – distance, isolation and the elements.
There are travel writers aplenty in the marketplace today. A swathe of them are gathered at this conference to parse intention and impact of several centuries worth of travel narratives. Some of them have written up their own travels. Some publish scholarly accounts gleaned from the journals of long forgotten perigrinators. Most are English professors who use the travel format to coax young writers to improve their writing — travel writing has found legitimacy with academia at last in English Composition 101. The difference that separates Thubron from other practitioners in the genre, is that he digs deeper. When he arrives in a new place, he seeks clues that create a narrative about the place and its people.
“I was looking for signposts, I knew. I couldn’t imagine a Russia without destiny. So I was hunting for symptoms of a new faith or identity, but hunting impatiently, as people do on first arriving somewhere, hoping for talismans, for simple meanings. ”p. 6
As he moves across the continent, he dogs after scraps of information that stop at the edge a town or a bleak cement building. Yet he finds a self-anointed shaman and an archeologist who believes he’s found evidence of the earliest human settlement. Introductions bring him to an apparatchik who believes in the government still, a museum curator willing to whisper what the real story is. He listens solemnly to disillusioned scientists set up by Soviet government to research laughably impossible projects—magnetic power zones, physic rays, aspects of the soul that no research might quantify.
You can’t be a writer with the Thubron’s treadwear without a refined sense of self awareness. He knows the little boy within him is excited by a river trip to the Arctic Circle and telling this, allows himself to be vulnerable to the world-weary scorn of his readers, who may think themselves more daring adventurers. He pokes fun at himself and wins our trust. I liked Thubron’s humility in the face of workers rising early in the morning to do jobs of enormous difficulty that might not even pay.
To his credit, Thubron listens to the Siberians, the crude and the complaining, the sensible and the fraught. He quests after the unfathomable and mystical, an aspect no itinerant can really grasp, and usually comes up with a semblance of personal mysticism overlaid on experience.
He has a habit of focusing on the slightly insane, the obsessed, the madly optimistic. Perhaps this is characteristic of residents of Siberia, as I discovered myself during a month in the Russian Far East, in 1993. Siberia, like the American West, became the zone for cast-offs, criminals, trouble makers, dissidents, proto-revolutionaries. Siberia is a cleansing ground, a wetland to purge those perceived a problem by whomever was in charge. p. 114. Along the way we met a practicing Tuvan shaman near Lake Baikal who needs Walrus tusk, we visit the tender of the last chapel of the Old Believers, a mad scientist who believes Russian cosmic thinking can save the world from soul destroying materialism.
Focusing on a pivotal local figure in each town he visits, Thubron gives us dialogue with real people, sometimes the characters are achingly optimistic, sometimes, as we might expect, they are beaten. The tone is set early on, when Thubron tips the bottle with a hobo drunk living in a field near Katarinaberg where Czar Nicolas II and his family were murdered. He examines the decay and detritus of a society moved on like debris after a flood, stuck or clinging to their ideological branches.
In a way Thubron is travel writer as knowing spy. Blending in because he speaks Russian and his features suggest Estonia or the Sami of the far Arctic, yet standing out because he isn’t really from there, Thubron nods and agrees with locals as they tell their tales, while thinking his private thoughts.
Later, during other conference break-out sessions, I sought Thubron and tried to pin him down on truth in travel writing, an issue that buzzed during between-session parlays. The previous evening, another writer had read from his book, a narrative larded with obviously imagined and embellished events, which he claimed was non-fiction travel writing. One of the conferees had pointed out that all writing is invented, whether it is called fiction or non-fiction. Others complained that the author from the make-it-up style of travel writing insulted the audience.
“We expect truth within the form. I take exception when the reader expects truth and the writer purposefully distorts the event,” he said. “A postscript or an editor’s forward alerts readers that the writer is playing with images, but to present all as truth when whole sections are invented, that’s wrong.”
“The caveat, of course, is that nothing written is truth,” said Thubron, joining his hands around a thick white mug at a table in the hotel’s dimly lit coffee shop. “Writers forget, they exclude information all the time, creating a parallel text to what actually happened. When you work from notes, it’s the author’s choice. No travel book is entirely truth in that sense. But, when reality is so extraordinary, why invent?”
I asked the obvious: How would a reader know when a writer invents material.
Thubron answered: “If a reader knows the culture, when a writer invents, the scenes ring false.”
For me, that was the crux of Thubron’s In Siberia.
Anyone who has been there– and I have, to a few of the places he visited and others, equally remote, that he didn’t – knows in a heartbeat that these odd and wildly generous characters that Thubron meets wherever he goes are typical of the Russian hinterland. He didn’t have to look too deeply to find pathos. Travel in Siberia is always consternating, so the encounters with the colorful locals replace the tedium and the setbacks. That’s exactly the way In Siberia reads.
But I wondered about the dull people Thubron must have met in Siberia.
He writes of a broken infrastructure, people with suspicion for outsiders and neighbors alike.
Using a technique that could trip a clumsy writer, Thubron alternates passages in the past tense for bits of arcane history and urgent present tense description of his own adventures. He artfully weaves anecdotes that demonstrate ‘what if’ scenarios — a Spanish commandant’s daughter in 1803 San Francisco who pined in a convent she founded, to live veiled in the memory a noble Russian adventurer who died before he could return to California, a land that could have become Russian if history played out differently. p. 111. What if Lenin was never exiled?
The surrealism that characterizes Siberia edges onto nearly every page. Mystified by the people’s quest for religion, he walks with “the KGB major turned Baptist pastor, to a chapel built with American dollars in Communism’s City of the Dawn.” p. 239. Shaking his head in disbelief, he tells the conference audience, “The gulags exist –the mines at Butugychag and the transit camps at Magadan are all still there. But the people don’t have the aversion to the camps. Disaster is perceived as normal in Russian history,” said Thubron.
“I really have to check facts out,” said Thubron. He worries that travel writers prolong myths and clichés. We talked about the issue of accepting hearsay when local knowledge may be the wrong information. How writers have to check the facts in libraries. “People don’t mention what they don’t see. They miss the things out there that might surprise them,” he said. “I may do too much analyzing. When I’m obsessed with a subject, I’m thinking how to get people to talk about it, how to describe the next landscape.”
Tourism has benefited Siberia, to a certain extent. Korean and Japanese investment has improved some of the far eastern cities. But environmental restrictions may be overlooked when rivers are leased for fishing tour operators and rapacious timber harvesting continues.
Thubron said he worries he might miss something. “You’re nagged that you’re an outsider looking in. For example, I spoke with Muslim students in Bukhara–they’re the heart of young Islam of the future.
I considered them true insiders, but they told me they felt like outsiders with little communication. They felt shunned by the secular city.”
The book ends in Magadan with the scary shuffle through ruined transit camps and caved in gold mines. “ In Siberia we’re all outsiders,” said Thubron, “immigrants to the landscape. The world is made up of hundreds of millions of exceptions.”
by Colin Thubron
Harper Collins, January, 2000
$26.00, 288 pages, Index
Interview reported by L. Peat O’Neil who writes for the Washington Post and teaches travel writing at UCLA online. Books include: See the World-Sell the Story (2005), and Pyrénées Pilgrimage (2010).