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The Amur in the Time of COVID-19
In their baccalauréat orals, French students have been known to sidestep the open-ended C’est quoi l’amour? (What is love?), craftily submerging the examiners with a torrent of geographical minutiae: L’Amour est un long fleuve tranquille de Sibérie (The Amur is a long calm river in Siberia…) No doubt that deporting love to Siberia earned a singular student or two top marks for thinking on their feet. But no doubt either that, in later years, those who attempted to follow in their wake were dispatched to meditate on Ernst Jünger’s maxim that one should never resort to facile wordplay on names (You can always be sure they have been used before, in the school playground.) Touché!
But this is not the Thubron way. Launching his account of his travels, The Amur River: Between Russia and China, from the river’s fountainhead in Mongolia, we will necessarily, and with interest, soon learn the particulars of the Siberian river, of where it rises and where it falls and of the natural and historical events encountered along the way. But Thubron never waters downs his ink and, for all its length and breadth, the river peregrination he conveys the reader along is never waterlogged. Thubron travels light, and he does not bog down his writing with trivia.
In the first chapter, “The Source,” Thubron provides us some bearings, telling us that the Amur “drains a basin twice the size of Pakistan, and more than two hundred tributaries, some of them immense, pour into its flood in spring. For over one thousand miles it forms the border between Russia and China: a fault-line shrouded in old mistrust.” Having provided us this vade mecum, he rapidly moves onward. He grabs our attention with able sketches of place and people, flowers and wildlife. The terrain in which the writer and his party of guide and horsemen find themselves floundering along as they search for the fountainhead is, quite literally, a bog. Paradoxically, the swamps that give rise to the great river also give rise to the book’s strongest chapter. The reader is pulled forward into the currents of the meandering narrative and learns early on to place faith in the narrator’s able hands. We ride forward with him on his old (yet dependable) Mongol pony (the White One). We feel for his mishaps on the way. Through deft touches, we partake in his party’s painstaking advance through the marshlands. And while you hold in your hands a hefty tome with its last page still to be reached somewhere far away to the east, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean (If Thubron hadn’t made it, there would be no book), you read on with bated breath for his safe exit from the quagmire.
Also apparent in this first chapter is the author’s reserve (another paradox). If we learn early on that he is a man who has reached his 80th year, we are often left to guess at the fatigues associated with the age. When he does evoke his age, he does so with some surprise, as glimpses of his physical frailty are revealed to him in the way his companions consider him. But if Colin Thubron is old, he too is dependable. He is always diligent when describing the people met on the way, always sympathetic. Discovering that his guide, Batmonkh (“dark skinned and handsome, with large, swimming eyes”), has a Congolese father, he muses out loud that Batmonkh must have experienced some prejudice, but the latter retorts that if he suffered it was not for his colour but “for his family’s obscurity” (which is both poignant and funny too when you reread the sentence…But Thubron does not much care about humour, and this is no doubt involuntary.) He gives us to see Batmonkh, who speaks fluent English (his “smile returns with a kind of gentle apology”), but also, convincingly, the Mongol horsemen who do not (“They are both born in The Year of the Horse – although they say this means nothing,” and they have heard “of a British prince marrying a mixed-race American.”) When Thubron is dragged through the bog by his horse, owing his life to a cheap tennis shoe slipping free of his stirrup, he refuses to dwell on the incident. He prefers to linger on scenes such as the one he trained his eye on in the dancing flames of the fire, portraying his fellow travellers with camaraderie rather than probe his throbbing ankle. His reticence is a balm and allows him to train his sights on the world: a flicker in the camp light, a ray of sunshine on the waters; that’s all it takes. The personal modesty allows the writer to recede into the shadows and places the people he encounters at the centre. “You do not fondle their heads,” says Thubron, unsentimentally, of the Mongol ponies (The horsemen will later tell him that the horses are “good to eat when they are old.”)
But the writer truly comes into his own when describing the fall of the land, its flora, and its fauna. Thubron here reveals himself at his most precise as he effortlessly folds blooms and butterflies into the page. There is no profusion of flowers in Thubron’s Amur; rather, there are “asters, sweet vetch, gentians and purple and red clover.” The grasslands are “whirring with wasps and flies, and tiny marbled butterflies are careering above.” Yet this is not specific enough, and Thubron proceeds to name them, one by one: There are “red admirals and painted ladies.” There are “fast-flying tortoiseshells” and “wagtails (…) shrilling by the river.” I myself am sadly deficient in my knowledge of lepidoptera – the chasse subtile is too subtle for me. Animals smaller than a rabbit don’t hold my attention for long, but I do share in Thubron’s delight in naming the world – a true journey is largely the joy of bringing forth by calling into presence and Thubron has retained a sense of childish wonder. (And yes, although a bird is a bird is a bird…I do understand that a wagtail is not a butterfly – but I certainly did not know that wagtails “shrilled.” That unerring precision again, the poetry of accurate description – at the beginning was the Word.) When Thubron goes on to say that there where “many others [butterflies] I did not know,” one half suspects that this admission is courtesy on his part, a courtesy that sits well his with his vocabulary which, if recherché at times, is never recondite. (Who on earth still uses the word hoydenish? A boyish 80-year-old with a stiff upper lip stalking the Amur, that’s who.) Thubron excels at reenchanting the world, with his chiselled sentences and careful vocabulary. Later in his travels, he encounters “slow-smiling” women, and when a missionary plays him the Jew’s harp, it sounds as if “a crowd of tiny people were crying to leave her mouth.” But having chosen the path of gravity, from the congenial bogs of Mongolia, it’s all downriver for the Amur from here onwards.
Thubron chooses to travel from spring to embouchure, and not, as done for nearly all history, from mouth to source. Perhaps this decision simply flows from the fact that the springs have all been mapped: No longer of any use to us is the Latin phrase caput Nili quaerere (to look for the head, or founts, of the Nile) – a saying once used metaphorically to convey an impossible endeavour.) But as Chesterton once said, “only a living thing can swim upstream,” adding conversely that “a dead thing follows the current.” This leaves the lesser travel writer in a conundrum. What to describe in a fully chartered world? But Thubron, who would no doubt recoil from being labelled a travel writer (no more than Gustave Flaubert was a travel writer when relating his trip along the Nile in Egypt in his correspondence), is not the type to travel down the Amazon in a bathtub (as everything else has been done before). He is too enamoured by the word and the world for such silliness, too contrarian also no doubt, too anadromous (An anadromous fish is a “species that swims against the current, upstream, such as salmon.”)
While readers will no doubt be strongly engaged by the sparse beauty of the prose and find themselves rooting for the wise and ancient narrator in his aquatic travails, one element which is never found in the thousands of kilometres from marshy source to Pacific mouth is a sense of purpose. There is no fetching quest here, no long lost family connection deciphered in antiquated family papers, no mysterious souvenir brought back by a distant cousin that has excited the curiosity of the narrator and serves as pretext for his trip (and, more importantly, his book). This is refreshing as there is nothing worse than the contrived motives writers muster from a few dusty volumes found in their aunt’s cabinet to provide meaning to their futile divagations. On the other hand, and this is no spoiler really, it still comes as something of a surprise when the last drop of ink reaches the river mouth, and we find that there never was a goal to begin with. There are a few themes that can be grasped between the lines of the different tributaries that come to form the main trunk of the book. There is age. There are the aptly conjured up lives of the famous and the unwashed masses who sought to make the Amur into their “Far West.” Thubron is, as ever, discerning in his use of the troves of historical material. There are the unknown – to me – Japanese gulag camps, the anti-Chinese pogroms and the (vain) glories of the Cossack. Thubron hardly ever places an ill-foot when touching on these blood-soaked pages of history. A quibble would be that Thubron feels obliged to disparage the Far East Russians’ “Yellow Peril” fears. Racially prejudiced or not, the danger of Chinese hegemony in the region is, from a geopolitical angle, real enough (Likewise, the Chinese do not care much for their neighbours, calling them the Hairy Ones). But Thubron mostly tells it as it is. He shies away from politics, and, besides Vladimir Putin, the only contemporary politician to be name checked is Donald Trump (one of the few details that gives the reader a hint as to when the book is set). Shrewdly, when asked about Stalin, Thubron parries, answering, “I hate him for what he did to Russia.”
Indeed, training his watchful eye on the Amur, Thubron would have us believe he has forgotten the world – there are no impediments in his Amur in the time of COVID-19, which surely must have featured heavily in his travel arrangements. When he interrupts his travels because of winter, the gap is elided in one sentence, and we pass from autumn to spring, from first snow to last ice, in one paragraph break. For the time the snow settles on the Siberian plains is a blank page, and Thubron retreats deeper into his inner citadel, ever the stoic.
If I have a distant memory of reading Among the Russians a very long time ago and a much older memory still of having read In the Hills of Adonis (Both very, very good, I remember that much), I know nothing about Colin Thubron himself. And, not having carried out a search for his name nor having read anything about his person (apart from his Wikipedia page, characteristically terse) I – that is to say the average reader for whom I am here a stand in – is left in the dark about the narrator’s persona.
We are left with the author’s allusive memory of past place: his memories of being in certain places twenty, forty (!) years beforehand. But apart from these far and between lines of thought on being older and a little barebones reminiscing, there is very little of the desires and thoughts of Colin Thubron that breaks through in these shimmering pages in which he so adroitly captures the reflections of history and the lives lived along the mighty river’s shores. Thubron will not indulge in bathing in the same river twice. Are we to conclude then that this is art for art’s sake – travel writing for the amour?
We learn more about Batmonkh, his Mongolian-Congolese guide in the dark heart of Asia, than we learn about Thubron himself, so that we are left groping for something of the author to hold on to. Borges comes to mind when looking for Thubron in his own book: “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” And so with Thubron: What you hold in your hands, the Amur, c’est lui.
There is much to be admired about this attitude, in our age of celebrities in which daily hiccups become the subject of Promethean TikToks (Oh, how many Instagram updates that swollen ankle could have provided!) But there is also something disingenuous.
Searching for clues, the reader sometimes feels that what he has in his hands is a sort of nouveau roman of travel writing: Character is not required, and the only plot is the gravity-led river. When we get glimpses of the writer, it is by peering between the lines as seen through a lattice, and you read The Amur River much the same as you would read Robbe-Grillet’s Jalousies. Ultimately, one should, I feel, be grateful for this hauteur: One twitches in pain at the thought of what many writers (the bloggers, the vloggers) would have made of their near-death in a Mongolian bog. Colin Thubron has no social media accounts – he is of the wrong generation, but he also lacks the required amour-propre (Somehow, I don’t think the Colin Thubron from Sunderland on Twitter is he: six followers – tagline: “All around Good Egg!!”)
I have long had an interest in Siberia. It fulfils for me the need we all have for that special locale we like to preserve as a distant destination for some future far-flung destination, one that we will probably never reach (the Potala Potala in Lhasa, the Juan Fernandez Archipelago or perhaps Paris, Texas; destinations vary according to personality.) This means that I have read a number of books on the region and that I have also in recent years watched a number of YouTube videos by some of our travel vloggers. These videos, cobbled together from smartphone “rushes,” taken from the end of a telescopic baton, may go on to garner hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views. While I do enjoy the window onto the world provided by these videos (They are skilful, too, in their way), Thubron’s web of words, his erudite and self-effacing accounting of reality, the time invested to travel, put words to paper, is a monumental effort (He has a working knowledge of both Mandarin and Russian, a feat in itself.) The Amur River is a labour of love, a life’s work.
I sojourned in Paris during this second long COVID-19 summer of discontent. Abandoned by the Chinese and American tourists, the streets were at times eerily quiet. The metro underground walls were also empty, and the usual advertisements for easyJet and Ryanair (weekend getaways to Dubrovnik, stag nights in Latvia) were nowhere to be seen. In their place, there were enjoinders about social distancing and vaccination campaigns: Distance was caring, liberty confinement. The Potemkin village had put up new stage sets overnight, and I was reminded of the old Soviet joke: When an American tells a Russian that they have freedom of expression in the USA, the Russian responds that they too have this freedom – but they only allow the truth. Except that now, the joke was on us. When I went to visit an old publishing acquaintance, Henri Dougier, the zestful founder of the Editions Autrement (eighty-five years young), I was not surprised when he told me that the bottom had fallen out of the travel book market. It may be, in retrospect, that the travel writing golden age coincided with the combination of the postwar economic bonanza and the afterglow of the literate prewar generation. The epoch now seems to be pulling into an uncertain destination, and if travel vloggers will remain the toast of the day for some time to come, The Amur River may well be the bookmark of an era (Henry Dougier added, “The big hitters will do okay, newcomers not so much” – that is, the Colin Thubrons, the Bill Brysons, will continue selling.) If you do insist on going down the tubes yourself – we have entered the New Screen Deal, after all – “visit” Bald and Bankrupt’s YouTube channel (a cheeky Englishman’s forays around Eastern Europe), and Yeah Russia (gritty Russian realism in Vladivostok, from a twenty-something).
Colin Thubron, although not adverse to describing his physical ailments (for the sake of truthfulness) and even describing in passing a visit to some toilettes à la Turque (the “Turkish” design is problematic for his sprained ankle), errs in the opposite direction. This bashfulness is certainly appealing. So that I will confess that I was much taken by Thubron’s writing, indeed I liked is so much that my main reservation is that there just wasn’t enough of it. “Anecdote! Anecdote!” I felt like clamouring at times, together with one of the rowdy guests at a dinner Thubron attends. In a lovely sentence, the author, forlorn and injured, having managed to exchange a few words with his wife on a loaned satellite phone, alludes to the roses that are now in full bloom in their English garden – but this is as close as we will get to the Englishman’s keep. These lovingly crafted sentences are one of the joys of travelling down the Amur with Colin Thubron. “There was some sadness with a Chinese woman,” one of his interlocutors tells him while a French passenger on a river boat throws “his sugared cabbage out of the ship’s window, plate and all, in a fit of outrage.” And a year “lies like a trench between a teenager and any future.”
But it is highly revealing that while the author does not hold back from describing a visit to the lavatory, at no time does he mention writing (not even notetaking). One can be thankful for this, in our navel-gazing era, but one rather has the impression, as displayed by his craft in writing about the marshes, that Thubron is one of a rare breed: a writer who could delve into all sorts of bogs and not sink in the mire (Perhaps one should read his novels?) Thubron does, after all, write convincingly about butterflies and insects, which, just like intercourse, is a subject most writers should never attempt (Unsurprisingly, one of the sole false notes I thought I encountered in The Amur River was when Thubron describes some Siberian women as “having sex with bears.” Surely, a less clinical word would have been apposite for these shamanistic matings?) But Thubron’s caution serves him well, and he seldom, if ever, turns an off-tune word. One of the laws of travel writing should be to never drone on about insects, except if your name be Ernst Jünger or Nicolas Bouvier, but Colin Thubron himself passes the “butterfly test” with flying colours.
And then there are those intriguing (and frequent) turns to God, in the form of church visits and conversations with missionaries and worshippers. But here, too, we are left guessing at the author’s motivations (When someone offers to say a prayer for him, Thubron is deeply embarrassed, but whether for absence of faith or for British good manners, one will not know.) Perhaps these religious incursions are just necessary sociological background material in a country such as Russia. Is life a long fleuve tranquille devoid of meaning, or does it all make sense at the very end? I do not know what Colin Thubron thinks, and he is too polite to tell me.
In his last chapter, “The Promise,” on the verge of the Pacific, Thubron once more masterfully weaves history and the people with their surroundings (“The forest offers visceral excitement, and a paradoxical peace,” he writes, describing Alexander, his guide in these parts.) He turns his hand to naming the animal kingdom again, fish this time around (including the anadromous salmon). There is the Arctic char, the giant taimen (also a type of salmon), the glassy Mandarin fish, the yellow-cheek carp and the Mongolian red fish…If you can sometimes wonder if Thubron’s artfulness hasn’t enabled him to evade with brio the question that we all have to answer at the end of the river (“C’est quoi l’amour ?”)and if there are, at times, flashes of Old Etonian brilliance in punting aside tricky questions, the author’s love of the Amur, this Amur in the time of Covid, and of life itself in all its variations, beguiles on every page. Thubron has ably steered us down a difficult river with eyes wide open and a generous heart to boot (a rare combination). Rarer still is the ability to put all this to paper.
I doubt I shall ever reach the Amur River myself, but I owe Thubron thanks for having allowed this reader to remain, for a while, “alone for an idle interval in someone else’s home,” as Thubron aptly writes, when put up for the night in an empty guesthouse – this could be a ready definition of the traveller in foreign lands (and also for the reader of an honest travel tome). To paraphrase Henri Michaux, writing of being plunged into reading a book in his eponymous Ecuador travelogue: I was no longer in Paris but steeped in the great Siberian waterway. In his fine pursuit of the river Colin Thubron has ever so diffidently allowed his readers to immerse themselves in the Amur, with love.
The Amur River
By Colin Thubron
304 pages, Chatto & Windus