(Belated) book review: Chasing the Sea
There are writers. Then there are Writers. Tom Bissell is a Writer.
Bissell joined the Peace Corps in college and was stationed in Uzbekistan. Bissell ended up not finishing his stint, hightailing it out of the country after seven months (out of a two-year assignment.) But then, five years later, he came back to write 2003′s Chasing the Sea, a book whose subtitle, Being a Narrative of a Journey Through Uzbekistan, Including Descriptions of LIfe Therein, Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, the World’s Worst Man-Made Ecological Catastrophe, in One Volume, tells you all you need to know about the book.
What I’ll add that it is incredibly rich and layered in its descriptions of Uzbek and post-Soviet culture, infused with history, geography, cultural tidbits, and Uzbek and Russian language trivia that even me, a native Russian speaker of the highest caliber (equivalent to a kindergarten-level fluency in Russian reading), would have never known in a million years.
And Bissell is an extremely, extremely talented writer, combining cynicism from his stint in Gulistan (a time marked by his depression, named Blackmind), humor, and genuine concern for the ecological catastrophe that is the Aral Sea. Reading this book has launched him into my top-five authors list, which at the moment, includes Shalom Auslander, Gary Shteyngart, Suzanna Clarke, Philip Pullman, and Charles Dickens. (If you click on the last link, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and go straight back to your 9th grade English class.) (Ok, top 6. It’s hard to choose. And count.)
Bissell’s journey starts in Tashkent and sprawls through Bukhara, Gulistan, where he served his term, and Samarkand, before finally winding up at Moynaq, the town that’s the front line for the health issues that are a direct result of the depletion of the Aral Sea during the Soviet Era.
He takes copious notes at every location he visits, recreating everything in such vivid detail that you don’t need to fill out five entry visa forms to Uzbekistan or suffer from a case of The Troubles while eating shashlik. He is assisted by his trusty translator/local college student/perfect example of homo post-Soveticus, Rustam.
This book is everything you will ever need in a travel book, a history book, a ethnography book, and a guide to Russian swearwords and how to evade Uzbek narcotic-sniffing dogs, as well as everything you need to know about eating sheep heads.
Why? Aside from the richness of the book as a perfect armchair travel companion, I LOVE the tone. It’s just so cynical, so understanding of the Soviet and Uzbek culture and subtleties, and so deadpan, that every page contains a bookmarked catchphrase. Here are a few of my favorite passages:
[in Bukhara] Our morning began as all mornings in Bukhara must, or should: drinking tea beneath the trees in the shady beauty of Lyab-i-Hauz while two ancient Uzbek raconteurs named Alisher and Alisher described life in the Old City in the 1930s and 40s and 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s.
[in the Tashkent metro with Rustam] Rustam stared down at the floor.
-You have some admirers, I whispered. He looked up.
-Over there. I said.
Rustam found them and smiled. They all turned simultaneously inward, a giggling huddle. An old babushka in a yellow hair net and dark blue stockings sitting near the girls pushed her mouth off to the side in an attempt to stifle her smirk.
-Tashkent girls, Rustam said rhapsodically. They’re the best. You can talk to the hottest ones. You can even score with them, dude. Unless they’re, like, mafia bitches or something like this.
-I doubt many mafia women ride the subway though.
-Dude, I don’t know.
[On a flight to the Ferghana Valley] I turned away from the window and sipped my plastic cup of apple juice.
-I was under the impression that you were served vodka on these local flights.
-Vodka, Rustam asked, Nah who told you this?
-I don’t remember. I heard it somewhere, from someone.
-The only people who would get vodka would be the pilots.
-Just enough to relax them.
-I’d hate for them to be nervous.
He looked past me out the window, slapping his knees with sudden hambone flair.
-You’re gonna love Ferghana. It’s like Russia, except prettier. And I have to say, the people in Ferghana are much cooler than in the rest of the country.
-How do you mean?
-You know, bro. In Ferghana we’re… mountain people? Valley people?
-Everyone else in Uzbekistan is desert people. Desert people are much more, like, stressed out about everything. In the mountains you can just chill. Nothing is a big deal. The Kyrgyz are like that. They’re calm. They don’t worry.
-But isn’t Tajikistan 80% mountainous? They didn’t seem to be very willing to chill during their civil war.
Read this book if you are looking to brush up on your Uzbek national history. Or if you’re interested in a jaunt to mountains on the Kyrgyz border where Russian mountain climbers bury their dead. Or if you want to know what made the author leave Central Asia, and then come back again. Or if you just like adventure stories about Central Asia. It starts like this, which gives you an idea of the tone to follow,
The night was hot or cold, depending on where one stood. It was not unlike swimming in the ocean and feeling across one’s belly an amniotic warmth followed immediately by a freezing underwater gale.
Editor’s note: Cross-posted from Vicki’s personal blog here (ENG).