BOOK REVIEW / On the Turkish margins of a dead empire: 'Empire's Edge' - Scott Malcomson: Faber, 8.99 pounds

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MANY books are coming hot off the presses about the new world emerging on the margins of former Soviet power, but few are as ambitious as Scott Malcomson's. He describes an unusual intellectual journey through Romania, eastern Bulgaria, Istanbul and Uzbekistan, and his stated intention is to show 'how people have lived on the borders of empires'. Essential truth shoulders aside essential truth as he strides deeper into his travels, retelling meditations, conversations and histories ranging from nuggets of a few lines to several pages of detail.

But for the striking and unusual quality of the writing, sayings, people and places on offer, the narrative might have begun to seem like an overstuffed curio shop, even off-putting when the author pushes the reader into his position by switching 'you' for 'we' in mid-narrative.

In the end, any overall meaning in the marginality of these countries seems to be found only in their confusion and diversity. A senior editor at a New York literary supplement, Malcomson is much helped by his knowledge of Islam and of the Turkish language, which is spoken in most of the places he visits. This manages to mould unity in his marriage of intellectual history and travelogue.

He is especially good on the political theory of 'uniquely demented' Romania which, unlike formerly imperial Istanbul and the Uzbekistan of Tamurlane's day, has always been on the edge of empires. 'Romania is less a coherent zone than a primeval highway to somewhere else,' he writes.

In Bulgaria he captures well the ambivalence of the Turkish minority, allowing one of his interlocutors to coin a term for their odd status as 'Euromuslims'. He also shows how Balkan history became twisted, how 'local massacres were quickly embroidered upon and used by European politicans to justify anti-Ottoman policies. They are still used today as shorthand for the special malevolence of 'The Turk'.'

Turkey and Romania may be very different, but both countries felt insecure enough to cook up theories of how world civilisation derived from them.

Malcomson finds Turks today losing their distinctive Muslim flavour, just as Turkish tomatoes do as they try to conform to European markets, and yet ultimately excluded from a Europe centred on Christian values where 'Turkey's instincts don't fit in.'

If the blind Islam of the past may not revive in Turkey, how much more true that should be in Uzbekistan, where Soviet rule did an even more thorough job of trying to exterminate history. Malcomson finds much of the old Uzbek spirit has survived. Unfortunately, so has the old oppression, an unhappy legacy of Uzbek's past.

Malcomson meets a man who likes to be known as Uzbekistan's first dissident.

'He acts like a free man, as if he can do whatever he likes: park on the sidewalk, smoke in the elevator, order things that are not on the menu. This would be obnoxious in Brooklyn, but in Tashkent it is electrifying - because no one in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan is free, certainly not (dissident) Abdurahim Pulatov, whom we eventually find sprawled on a sofa in a sanatorium, his head wrapped in bandages.' The bandages are a relic of a secret police beating.

Eventually an Uzbek loses his job as a result of meeting Malcomson and it is time to go. 'For you, this is just a taste of fear, a little kernel,' he writes, a suitable epitaph for the authoritarianism usually dominant in these lands on the fringe. But it is also a fierce challenge to the West's interest in the region. 'You can't imagine what its like,' he adds, 'to live with that fear every day for decades and never be sure it will end.'