If it's Tuesday, it must be Chechnya

by Tze Ming Mok / 31 January, 2004
TO CATCH A TARTAR, by Chris Bird (John Murray, $29.99); GOING TO EXTREMES, by Nick Middleton (Pan, $27.95); EIGHT FEET IN THE ANDES, by Dervla Murphy (John Murray, $29.99); CHILDREN OF KALI, by Kevin Rushby (Robinson, $29.95).

To travel writers, nothing is merely real in foreign parts; all is symbolism. That blindspot is critically targeted by journalist Chris Bird in his superb book To Catch a Tartar. "The problem with this war is that it's too goddamn romantic," a fellow journalist complains to him, as they wait out a doomed ceasefire in Chechnya.

Bird, who also covered the 1999 Racak massacre in Kosovo for the Observer, unflinchingly filed for Associated Press during Chechnya's first war of secession (1994-96) with post-Soviet Russia. His book is an accomplished exercise in the highest mode of eyewitness war-reporting: tragedy. At the beginning, the romantic spirit of "great virtue in unequal odds" is invoked - then slowly bludgeoned away by the hard-nosed spectre of genocide.

Bird warms up by covering the internal conflicts stoked by Russia within newly independent Caucasus states, then heads to Chechnya, Russia's rogue mountain republic. The result is gripping, compulsory reading for all nerds of post-Soviet politics. (An excellent companion-piece would be BBC reporter Misha Glenny's The Fall of Yugoslavia.)

For other people (whoever they are), Bird's pitch-perfect reportage and literary allusions will be deeply compelling. Between vivid encounters with paramilitaries, peasants, prisoners and presidents, he tenderly disassembles works of the Russian masters in the manner of Edward Said unpacking Conrad. It's a short walk from canon to cannon.

As the histories unfold, we find that Russia revisits a thankless invasion of Chechnya every 50 years. And those who do not heed history are condemned to have journalists repeat aphorisms at them: "Had no one in the Kremlin read Tolstoy?" Bird asks despairingly. He and the other witnesses and participants in this misadventure of an amnesiac, diminished empire churn towards fatigue, disappointment and loss.

At its best, Bird's prose is both taut and effortless, laconically poetic, capturing in half a sentence a sense of skin, slogan and shadow, the deportment of heavy armour, the life of a moustache. He's close enough to hear the Chechen President's knuckles cracking, smell the evacuated bowels of cranky refugee babies, and feel the engines of F-16s vibrating in his stomach.

The writing becomes terser and more urgent at each butchered village, and is capped by a bitter postscript. The atrocities Bird witnessed in Chechnya have been politely ignored by Western powers - traded off against the atrocities he witnessed in Kosovo. Meanwhile, anaesthetised by the discourse of "the war on terror", Russian democracy ambles towards an easy suicide.

"Travel is useful," Celine said. "It exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue." And travel books, those journeys to the end of imagination, traverse minefields of orientalist fantasies, steaming exoticism and the reduction of civilisations to chat, to spectacle. To television. Nick Middleton's Going to Extremes is a populist geographer's

written-for-TV mission to the hottest, coldest, wettest and driest inhabited places in the world: locales in Ethiopia, Siberia, India and Chile respectively.

For travel-show fans, Middleton's startling experiences without excessive insight, and jocular smatterings of toilet humour, will be an easy watch. His passion for climatology is divertingly geeky, and delivers his fondest musings.

But for every well-rendered observation, there is a mangle of metaphor, a fumbling of tone, wearisome laddishness or amateurish, if not offensive, anthropology. "I tried to think of words to express it, but failed," he aptly confesses at one point.

This is a quandary that never traps veteran adventuress Dervla Murphy, in a new edition of her epic 1983 trek through the Peruvian Andes with her small daughter and a mule. Murphy began her travel writing in 1963, when she rode a bicycle from Ireland to India, packing a gun and an apparent death-wish. In Eight Feet in the Andes, Murphy is in her element, exulting in the language found where mountains meet sky, extemporising on landscape of truly hallucinatory proportions.

Between the giddy heights, her daily diary drags. But the repetitive realism makes her clear-eyed socio-political tirades atop blasted ledges all the more credible: hard gems on colonialism, neocolonialism, the evils of the Catholic Church and the slavery of modernisation's "constant, meaningless change". An angry, self-reproachful acknowledgement that she is just "playing with hardship" is a showstopper. After testing their mettle, Western travellers must admit they are tourists, and go home.

Compromising admissions are at the core of Children of Kali, Kevin Rushby's quest to rediscover a vast cult of Indian stranglers, the Thugs, who were seemingly exposed and wiped out during the British Raj. Central to his problems in his search for the Thug cult, is that this nationwide "conspiracy" was actually a feverish imperialist fantasy, brought to life by confessions extracted under 19th-century police torture. Rushby eventually clicks, but should have noticed this historical footnote much sooner - perhaps before he left for India.

Still, Rushby employs considerable talent in avoiding the appearance of pointlessness for the rest of his story, weaving elegant, glowing threads on breathing and emotional liberation between patchy leads on crime and Kali. A witty, evocative and occasionally stream-of-consciousness style renders his slightly dubious philosophising palatable.

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