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Travel books: Landscapes and memories

Lilian Pizzichini reviews three books about journeys haunted by ghosts of the past
In Siberia

Colin Thubron

(Chatto & Windus, pounds 17.99)

From the Ural Mountains to the Bering Strait, washed by the Arctic to the north, and bounded by Mongolia and Turkestan to the south, Siberia covers a twelfth of the earth's surface. Until recently, most visitors were forbidden to travel beyond the narrow route of the Trans-Siberian railway. So when, on the fall of Communism, this outpost of Asiatic Russia, birthplace of Rasputin and erstwhile host to prisoners as fabled as Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, became open country, it was an irresistible destination for novelist and travel writer Colin Thubron.

completes a quartet of Asian travel books by Thubron. He writes about his 15,000-mile journey with the graceful economy of a poet; it is a prose style eminently suited to the immensity of his subject. For the Russian psyche, he says, Siberia has a special significance. As the repository of dissidents, criminals and "counter-revolutionaries", it has a fearsome reputation. Paradoxically, it is seen as a haven of religious salvation by peasants who locate their belovodye here, "their promised land". Thubron finds its topography and native folklore confirm the myths: "The ice-fields are crossed for ever by a man in chains."

Thubron is also keen to discover the effects of the fall of Communism. Inevitably, he finds collective farms depleted of machinery, and that the farmers' political liberation has plunged them into economic destitution. What comes across most emphatically, though, is the feeling among the more reactionary nationalist Russians that "in some mystical way the soul of Russia has migrated to Siberia, while the west of the country has sunk into the corrupt arms of the capitalist world".

In Yekaterinburg, Thubron takes the pilgrim's route to the graves of Czar Nicholas II and his family. His fellow pilgrims are "hysterical or obsessed", but Thubron cuts through the "whining plainsong" to reveal that these offspring of exiles who died in the camps are conflating their own tragedy with the czar's. It is as though the vast, inhospitable landscape demands from its scant populace an unshakeable faith - and any god will do. Thubron encounters Buddhists, animists, radical Christian sects and the remnants of a self-styled Jewish state. He remains resolutely democratic: each man, woman and village idiot is accorded an evenhanded respect.

But even Thubron is dismayed by the indifference of Russians to their brutal past. When he finds a gulag in Magadan that is about to be demolished, he realises that he is the first and last Westerner to witness this monument to Siberia's history.

This is an endlessly moving account of a troubled people. Thubron's cultural references are immaculate, and his ability to transcend the individual moment to weave an overriding thesis of sorrow renders his book the most wisely illuminating example of travel-writing: "Out of the anguish of history - even of daily, Chekhovian frustration - a new world must be born. It made sense of sorrow, of tedium. It made suffering dangerously embraceable. It seemed to heal Time."

Livingstone's Tribe: A Journey from Zanzibar to the Cape

Stephen Taylor

(HarperCollins, pounds 17.99)

Whereas Thubron's terrain is psychological, Stephen Taylor's in Livingstone's Tribe is more geo-historical. His journey takes in Lake Victoria and the Cape of Good Hope, as well as vestiges of the continent's colonial past. And, unlike Thubron, Taylor writes from the perspective of a man ambivalent about his childhood home.

Drawing on a well of intimate knowledge. Taylor follows the 800-mile Arab trade route to the Great Lakes, starting where caravans set out for the interior. Only he begins his tour of Zanzibar on the back of a vicar's motorbike. At the book's heart lies a riveting examination of Livingstone's tribe - the (invariably) pot-bellied whites of post- independence Africa. Their racist attitudes mimic the paternalism adopted by most African whites, shades of which Taylor sees in himself. This self-awareness adds complexity to an otherwise straightforward account.

Between Extremes

Brian Keenan and John McCarthy

(Bantam, pounds 16.99)

Brian Keenan and John McCarthy's four years' shared captivity in Beirut inspired two personal testaments to their ordeal.

Between Extremes is the third book to come out of that experience, and a joint effort by these courageous men to shake off their ghosts. During their incarceration, they had envisaged walking in the High Andes and across the wastes of Patagonia. Five years after their release, they put the theory into practice.

What is surprising in this co-authored testament to friendship is the fluid prose style and the effortless evocation of radically different landscapes.

They travel by every means available through deserts, verdant plains and intimidatingly barren tundra. At one point, joined by Chilean twitchers, they spot the Andean goose, which is, in fact, a duck. Whatever, McCarthy sees in it an omen straight out of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's odes. "This was destiny's bird of promise. The others could call it what they want."

Stout hearts and a sense of humour keep them keenly appreciative of every detail. Redress from dusty trains and jolting buses is sought in Chilean wines and flirtations with glamorous, "Shellac-skinned" women. These are innocents abroad, and they take us with them every step of the way with a wonderfully infectious joie de vivre.