Through Siberia by Accident, by Dervla Murphy

Beer and sympathy beyond the Urals
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

With each succeeding travel book, writers can lose some of the spring in their step. The enthusiasm that launched their careers turns to a weary plod as the next commission sends them on a further journey. Dervla Murphy happily disproves the rule. This is her 20th travel book, but it reads as freshly as if it were her first.

With each succeeding travel book, writers can lose some of the spring in their step. The enthusiasm that launched their careers turns to a weary plod as the next commission sends them on a further journey. Dervla Murphy happily disproves the rule. This is her 20th travel book, but it reads as freshly as if it were her first.

This may be because she finds herself exploring a completely unexpected destination. Originally intending to visit the Pacific shores of Russia, the accident of the title waylays her when crossing the Urals. Anxiously trying to avoid a projectile-vomiting baby, she slips on a wet washroom floor and damages her cartilage.

That might happen to any travel writer, but few would admit it or turn it to their advantage. Murphy is forced to convalesce in Siberia, letting its inhabitants regale her with sympathy and stories. Open-minded, a good listener and with a fondness for the odd beer which shocks Russians who don't like to see grandmothers drinking in public, this engaging Irish babushka attracts many friends. Indeed, at time one wishes she had made fewer, as the party becomes a crowded one and almost too many introductions are made.

Eschewing the romanticised Trans-Siberian Express, she uses the BAM railway as her principal transport. Little known outside Russia, the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) was the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken by the Soviet Union. Considered one of Stalin's white-elephants and costing the lives of many builders, it cut into then virtually unpopulated Eastern Siberia and was only finished in 1990. It now limps across the territory at 20mph.

Murphy is drawn to the railway by its slowness and strangeness, though aware of the environmental damage it has caused to the fragile permafrost. She finds that the lives of the residents run to a similarly slow rhythm in what is now a place of economic rather than political exile. The days when Siberians needed an "internal passport" to leave its borders may be over, but Murphy shows an unexpected nostalgia for certainties of the the Soviet era, and is unsparing in her criticism of the new freebooting marketeers.

Throughout she shows a refreshing lack of literary artifice. This is travel writing of a bygone, epistolary era - letters home detailing the curious, the true, and the beauty of the unspoilt taiga.

Murphy is particularly taken with the peerless blue of Lake Baikal, whose waters are still kept clear (despite the attempts of Soviet industrialisation) by a multitude of tiny crabs which eat all foreign matter, including bones and fabric. She adds with quiet relish that for this reason no intact bodies have ever been recovered from the lake. Just for a moment I could have sworn I heard Miss Marple's voice.

The reviewer's 'Nanda Devi' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments