Thubron, Colin: In Siberia

Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had bought it because some friends had talked of doing a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The trip had not materialised, but he had found an excellent book.

Thubron, educated at Eton, was seen as one of the last of the British “gentlemen-travellers”. He was prepared to spend many months immersing himself in a foreign country, and was not prone to the gimmicks in which many other “travel-writers” indulged. He had started writing in the sixties, and had written novels as well as travel books.

The book attracted universal approbation from the Group, who had turned out in bumper numbers to applaud it.

What did we like? The depth of research Thubron had carried out, and the ease with which he brought it to bear. The gripping vignettes, and the remarkable characters. The black horror of the region he exposed, which, for one at least, exerted a masochistic fascination. The way in which – unlike many other writers in the genre – he did not patronise or ridicule the people he met. The fact that he was not judgmental. The taut, episodic structure, without introduction or conclusion. The intriguing historical links to the world we had considered in Alan Clarke’s “Barbarossa” (see discussion 30/11/06) – such as the removal of Russian factories to the East, and the reminder that Stalin’s appetite for the heartless murder of millions matched that of Hitler.

However, the style of Thubron’s language provoked debate. For some the book was a difficult read. Not that it was badly written – every word was carefully chosen, and every image precise. But the language was densely packed and concentrated. His language did not have the rhythm and flow of a master of descriptive prose such as Capote. He also had the habit of shifting from character to character without signalling the change, forcing the reader to concentrate hard to find out what he was referring to (although he did not have this trait to the irritating degree found in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men”).

Others felt they must have been reading a different book. For them he always grabbed their attention. His opening sentences were particularly well-crafted, plunging the reader into the scene, and the closing sentences of episodes were equally well honed –

“So I let the old women trail away. I never did help one of them.

“This is a passage of shame”.

“As gripping as Chandler!” opined one member, who was not too concerned by having to re-read passages to find out what was going on – after all, that was the norm for those of us whose reading pattern was twenty pages at night before falling asleep.

Thubron’s method was to present the facts as they appeared to him, without overt comment or judgement. But did this mean it was a totally objective record of Siberia? We could not accept that was possible. It was Thubron who selected the episodes, the characters and the details to appear in his book. And inevitably this would, as a minimum, reflect the character and values of the observer – of an Eton-educated Briton in his late fifties.

Moreover, some of us felt there was a more active agenda lurking beneath the presentation he orchestrated. In one of his very few asides he noted that the Russians were always happiest when they had faith, and the world he presented was one in which their faith in communism had been shattered, and in which it was very difficult to find a new faith. For some religion was returning to fill the vacuum (and how intriguing it was to discover that Marshal Zhukov had carried concealed icons with him on the battlefield). Others were even trying to return to paganism. But for many only alcohol and despair filled the vacuum.

The peoples of Siberia had been ruthlessly exploited by the Czars and the Communists, and new exploiters such as the Chinese lurked on the horizon. Imitation of the culture and language of the West was portrayed as sadly pathetic. The book was an unrelentingly grim and tragic portrayal of the loss of hope, of betrayal, of brutality, and of grinding poverty. He had a particular skill for bringing alive the horrors of the past that lay beneath the surface of the present.

So was this an accurate portrait? Who could say? We suspected that a different observer might have chosen to focus on more green shoots of hope and recovery. (It was surprising perhaps that he made nothing of the fact that Siberia had been to Russia as Australia had been to Britain as a dumping ground for prisoners). He certainly seemed to select for display many characters who were freaks. And what sort of book would a Russian travel writer write about Scotland today? There were plenty of freaks who could be showcased to make Scotland seem a bizarre and tragic place (no names, no pack drill).

Or did the elegiac tone of the book partly reflect the age Thubron was? Or his personal circumstances? Or did it fit with a wider portrayal of the tragedy of Russia in his other books (which none of us could claim yet to have read)? Or maybe Siberia was indeed simply every bit as awful as the compelling portrait he painted.

Thubron once or twice lifted the veil to make gnomic statements about his wider views.

Thus we learn that:

“A traveller needs to believe in the significance of where he is, and therefore his own meaning” and that:

“I had been looking for patterns…I wanted their security. I wanted some unity or shape to human diversity. But instead this land had become diffused and unexpected …”

The ending of the book was clearly significant:

“Stalin’s empire, like Hitler’s Reich, was meant to last through all imaginable time. The past had been reorganised for ever, the future preordained.

“I say, not knowing: ‘You’ll never go back to that.’

“Yuri says: We’re not the same as you in the West. Maybe we’re more like you centuries ago. We’re late with our history here. With us, time still goes in circles.

“I don’t want to hear this, not here in the heart of darkness. I want him to call this place an atrocious mystery…

‘Maybe we spiral a little… a little upwards…we can joke about anything now. We’ve still got that. Jokes…’

“ And on that frozen hillside he starts to sing.”

Profound statements for some; too contrived for others.

So how did this travel book match up against others? No-one would confess to being an inveterate reader of the travel genre, but we agreed Thubron was not a normal travel writer, in the sense of a writer encouraging one to dream of summer holidays.

In one sense it was not really about travel at all. His perspective was historical rather than geographical, and his skill to bring alive the essence of the history of his places and use it to illuminate the present. In that respect he was similar to William Dalrymple (see discussion 30/8/06), a “travel” writer whose imagination was essentially historical. Or de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”? Thubron was not as funny as Bryson, but then Bryson really only wrote about himself, and Thubron definitely did not do that, nor did he belittle the subjects of his work.

The whole idea of being a travel writer (as opposed to a writer who sometimes wrote about his travels) seemed to be a twentieth century phenomenon. And far too often the whole point of the journey was to write the book, which devalued the exercise before it had started. Thubron – as a ”gentleman traveller” (why were they all Etonians?) – seemed much more authentic than that. Perhaps Wilfred Thesiger’s “The Marsh Arabs” was a book of similar weight, also made particularly significant by the point in time at which it was written.

Inevitably the discussion moved on before too long to accounts of vodka breakfasts, of the visitors to Russia who returned with Russian lovers and Russian drink problems – and the trips to Moscow that might not be made for either Liverpool FC or Chelsea (their semi-final was stretching into extra time as the Monthly Book Group meditated).

But why not? Here was a rare phenomenon for Scots to contemplate – a country with worse weather, mosquitoes worse than midges, a worse murder rate and worse drink problems.