Return to the Wild East

Colin Thubron's first journey to Russia ended in expulsion by the KGB. Twenty years later he went back to confront this realm of indelible fear.
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The Independent Culture

In Siberia by Colin Thubron (Chatto & Windus, £17.99, 286pp)

In Siberia by Colin Thubron (Chatto & Windus, £17.99, 286pp)

IN THE early 1980s, Colin Thubron drove his Morris Marina across the Western face of Brezhnev's bankrupt Soviet Union. His account of that visit, Among the Russians, began "I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember". Although that predictable Western apprehension melted during encounters with the Russians themselves, he was chased out of the country by the KGB.In that first account, Siberia was "the forbidding heart of this whole continent" and lent an "invisible enormity to everything". Almost 20 years later, after two further explorations of Asia - Behind the Wall and The Lost Heart of Asia - Thubron confronts his realm of "indelible fear" in this new book.

Siberia is a place of legendary bleakness and mystery. Once seen as "Russia's Wild East", where serfdom was illegal even under the Tsars, it has long been the "limbo" into which Russian autocrats poured "the viral waste of an empire - criminal, vagabond, dissident". Siberia became a place of labour camps or gulags that people - including writers like Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam - were sent and from which millions never returned.

The data on Siberia are all astonishing. It's the largest country on earth - larger than the US and Western Europe combined. It has the world's deepest lake, Lake Baikal, which contains a fifth of the planet's fresh water and a unique ecology. Siberia harbours significant proportions of the earth's gold and diamonds, as well as ruined populations of indigenous people.

The 500,000 Yakuts, for example, represent half the population of Sakha, an area the size of India. Kolyma - once an autonomous region of death camps policed by the Interior Ministry - is "vaster than Mexico". Even Birobidzhan, the virtually abandoned "Jewish homeland" near Vladivostok, was larger than Palestine.

Thubron is looking for something else, however. In Kyzyl, near the Mongolian border, an obelisk marks the geographical heart of Asia - which Thubron finds absurd. However, as he stands there, "confused, unable to leave", he remarks that "the land looks irreducible, like bone". It is this that he attempts to articulate and which has "consumed" his adult life.

Thubron is a novelist who travels. His travel books are personal and observational, sceptical not mythologising, and full of questions not answers. His writing is intelligent, reflective and evinces a quietly singular style. The latter is glimpsed in phrases such as "Gentian eyes" or "slow, incontinent wonder", but stretches over paragraphs which introduce deeply absorbed reading into his experience of what he calls "the precious commonplace".

The commonplace really is precious in Thubron's hands. Everyday encounters, gathered impressions and an equal receptivity to archeologists and homeless drunks enable but also anchor his speculations. So, although he began by looking for patterns, the place became "diffused and unexpected as I travelled it. Wherever I stopped," he admits, "appeared untypical" and refused to reveal an "essential Siberia".

But Thubron is driven by more than the commonplace. He identifies with the "stubborn needs and passions" of religious pilgrims near Omsk because, though agnostic, he hungers for belief. He searches for symptoms of new faith or identity on this journey because "I couldn't imagine Russia without destiny" and "faith would paint a future". He becomes gloomy when he doesn't find it.However, the most powerful passages in this book concern landscapes and human experiences that bloom with abstractions. In the Arctic Circle where "time slows into aeons, and history becomes geology. People lose their grip on it." Or wandering the snow fields and murderous mines of Kolyma, conjuring with the vastness of the landscape and his knowledge and feelings about the despair born there. These are the experiences and locales - "irreducible, like bone" - where Thubron is most effective. In these passages In Siberia, already a fine and fulfilling book, becomes an exceptional one.