Tuesday, 26 April 2011

shadow of the silk road [colin thubron]

Thubron's book is a curious journey. It's been several weeks in the reading. Crossing Asia from China to the Mediterranean. Following one strand of the Silk Road in a ramshackle, Westerly course through 300 plus tightly knit pages, full of dense, frequently poetic prose.

Anyone who's ever embarked on any kind of a journey knows that as well as the discoveries and the sights, there are also the longeurs and those moments where you wonder what the hell you're doing. Whilst Thubron obviously had more of a reason than some for his journey - he was on the way to writing another best-selling book - his account includes plenty of those longeurs and seemingly endless bus journeys.

The journey begins in China and, whilst still in possession of his full energy, this opening is perhaps the most engaging part of the book. Thubron gets to grips with the changing nature of China, retracing steps he's taken before. The fact he knew this land twenty years ago is to the book's benefit: the full extent of China's transformation in that time is ably conveyed. Subsequently, he continues to seek these parallels, looking at the way a place has evolved or declined. However, the route feels so haphazard that, as it unfolds, places bleed into one another. The Stans become something of a blur, and the final stint through Iran and Turkey is a breathless dash for the coast. Again, any traveller knows that there's a slight sense of diminishing returns the nearer you got to the journey's finish: you just want to get there, and the reaching of the end starts to become more important than the encounters along the way, but given that this is an account of the Silk Road itself, it seems as though the writer's weariness is in danger of short-changing the well-trodden path.

In part this is because the reader realises as the writer progresses that there is no real narrative at work here. This is travelling as a mass of observation. Some of it well done, some less so. When Thubron runs into 'ordinary' people, he describes them well. But too often the prose teeters on the brink of a heightened poeticism that runs the risk of seeming repetitive. (I lost count of the number of times he used the word 'faience' and I still have no idea what it means.) But what's going on beneath the surface? Why is the writer even embarking on this trip, unless he's just been commissioned? He seems to have no real stake in the journey, he's just a travelling notebook and pair of eyes. There's no real goal and no real story. Bizarrely, a note at the beginning of the book alerts the reader to the fact that the journey was interrupted for a year in the middle, due to the conflict in Afghanistan. But the book bumps along without reference to this; as though it has never happened. This acknowledged deception only provokes curiosity as to all the other unacknowledged deceptions.

Which is not to criticise the writer for these; the process of documenting a journey has to be a selective one. Just to suggest that his account might have had more purchase and been more satisfying if the writer had let us in behind the veil of his poeticisms a little more. Alluded not just to the journey of history, or silk, but also of the man himself.

No comments: