Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Journey to the Heart of Shabbiness

Kozmino oil terminal under construction

I’ve never been a fan of travel writing. It seems so self-indulgent, impressionistic, essentialist, and random. Travel writing is as annoying to me, as say, blogging is to other people. Apologies to all of you. I remember reading Paul Theroux’s musings as he worked his way across Mexico, down through Central America, across the Panamanian isthmus, across the Andes, and down to Patagonia, all by way of a train. I felt the journey to be as long and tedious as he must have felt it to be, despite his attempt to cover up the vicissitudes of South American train travel with literary allusion and cleverness.

Almost by definition, the travel writer feels unconstrained by organizational or thematic demands. He or she can write as much on any particular topic as seems necessary and then move on whenever necessary. It’s all a matter of whim and caprice. The writer isn’t even constrained by the reality of what one sees: he or she can refer to his or her own subjective perceptions of a place, or reach back into the past for previous iterations of the locale. You’re thinking that this blog is worse: it doesn’t even organize content into whole chapters. You’re also thinking that it’s not really possible to hate travel writing. It’s easy to digest, escapist, exotic, and colorful. Historians have even fallen in love with the genre, for in the context of history the travel writer’s biases, uninformed opinions, xenophobic ruminations, shallow attempts to sympathize with the “natives,” and misconceptions, become fodder for rich historical and textual analysis. Even so, I retain my position. Travel writing is solipsistic. The traveller seems to end up knowing less than the person who hasn't travelled. He certainly knows less than the people upon whom he bestows his passing appraisals.

It’s not surprising then that I didn’t warm up to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium, a record of his journeys through the disintegrating Soviet empire. The critics rave about the book. They love Kapuscinsky’s perspicacity, linguistic acumen, and cultural knowledge. And I must admit that the book has some merits. It takes you through a variety of Soviet republics and regions, reminding readers that the Soviet Union and Russia are not synonymous terms. One minute you’re in the Caucasus, the next in Ukraine, the next you’re in the Muslim South, the next in polar Siberia, the next in what used to be Poland. And you do learn something about the diversity of Soviet experience. You encounter separatism, memories of Beria’s arrest and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Khrushchev-inspired Virgin Lands ecological disaster, the disappearance of the Astral Sea, oil in Baku, Jewish life, and so much more.

If there is one unifying theme to Kapuscinsky’s travels, it is that of Soviet shabbiness. The planes don’t run on schedule, passengers wait for days on end at the airport, everybody can be bribed, housing stock is in poor condition and extremely limited, a low level fear of the authorities pervades every aspect of existence, resignation characterizes the dominate mood of the masses, etc. In this larger theme of a Soviet reality rooted in blandness and tediousness and creeping corruption, the author makes the best of a poor genre.

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