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Colin Thubron


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

In all his travel writing, Colin Thubron combines acute observation with a deep historical awareness. These characteristics are certainly in evidence here, although it has to be said that the tone of the book is sombre— hardly surprising in view of the terrible events that took place over many centuries in Siberia. Thubron describes it as Russia's Elsewhere. "Long before Communism located the future in an urban paradise, Siberia was a rural waste into which were cast the bacilli infecting the state body: the criminal, the sectarian, the politically dissident." I am reminded of how the British thought of Australia in the nineteenth century. And yet, paradoxically, Siberia was also seen as a haven of primitive innocence, almost an Arcadia.

Again and again in his journey, Thubron encounters regret at loss of faith. Many of the people he meets (he is evidently fluent in Russian) talk of the failure of Communism almost in religious terms. Some, though not all, have turned back to religion, sometimes in strange forms. Siberia was also the original home of shamanism; shamans were persecuted by the Communists and since its demise there has been an attempt to revive the ancient beliefs and traditions. Thubron attempts to find authentic shamans but there are hardly any left, and even those that still exist appear to have preserved only fragments of what once was.

The search for new forms of faith appears among scientists too, for whom the boundary between science and magic seems to be hazy. (Kirlian photography was a Russian invention.) Near Novosibirsk Thubron visits the grandly named Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine. Here he is shown an apparatus for measuring the magnetic signature of patients. This was supposed to treat or at least diagnose epilepsy and cancer. Part of the equipment was not working owing to the failure of the electricity supply but Thubron was persuaded to try a "hypomagnetic chamber" which was functioning and was intended to open up "psycho-physical recesses not normally explored", although there was the usual let-out clause: it all depends on the individual responsiveness. Thubron, it appeared, was not sufficiently sensitive: he felt nothing and failed to detect the dummy machine from the real one.

At the end of his journey, at the Yakutsk Academy of Sciences, Thubron meets Yuri Mochanov, an archaeologist who insists that he has discovered evidence that civilization began in Siberia and is two and a half million years old. Mochanov is puzzled and hurt by the refusal of Western archaeologists to take him seriously. And yet he does seem to have discovered something of interest: evidence of occupation of the Arctic edge at a much more remote period than had been previously known, some 300,000 years ago, but his isolation from mainstream science had fostered unsustainable beliefs in him.

Two of Thubron's Siberian journeys stand out particularly for me. In one, he takes a steamer north to the Arctic Circle on the River Yenisei, arriving finally at Dudinka, a nightmarish place inhabited by people who have lost all hope and seem to do little but drink and occasionally hunt the remains of the once-plentiful reindeer herds. And yet, when he leaves, they club together to give him a parting gift: a plastic bag full of omul salmon, which he is unable to use.

The final journey takes him to the Pacific, but here too the temperature is glacial. And he goes to visit the remains of the camps where the victims of Stalin's purges were sent. An unimaginable two million people were killed here, in conditions as appalling as those of the Nazi death camps. Thubron spares the reader little in his description of what occurred, though he does not speculate on why this terrible crime should be so comparatively little known in the West. Is it because it was not genocide (Stalin was impartial in his choice of victims), or because Stalin was our ally in the war?

Things are at least better now, Thubron tells his guide as they contemplate the site, though one senses a question in his statement. Yuri does not seem entirely convinced. "Those were religious times, in a way," he says. "People believed things." Again we find this longing for a faith. Thubron leaves us with the hope that such events could never happen again, but it is a hope rather than a certainty.

Few travel books these days lack photographs, but this is an exception. Thubron seems to have travelled pretty rough and it would have been difficult to carry a camera safely, but I suspect that he would not have wanted one in any case. His writing is certainly vivid enough to evoke a sense of place, but what interests him is not the surface of things but what lies underneath and in the past. For this, pictures would be an irrelevance and a distraction.

29 December 2004

%T In Siberia
%A Thubron, Colin
%I Chatto & Windus
%C London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 1-85619-798-0
%P 287 pp
%K travel

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