Central Asia Literary Guide & Suggested Books

by Nathan Hamm on 6/26/2006 · 12 comments

Salon and the Travel Channel are putting together a literary guide to the world, a collection of articles about literature from and about particular places and regions. Among the handful of articles already online is Tom Bissell’s on Central Asia (he also wrote the one of Vietnam and his The Father of All Things, about his first trip to Vietnam with his father, a Vietnam war veteran, is due next year).

Bissell’s article mentions only five books, but that is, in my opinion, largely a result of the relatively small number of books about and from Central Asia that are available in English. And the numbers are even smaller when focusing exclusively on fiction. In the fiction category, Bissell recommends The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, and Robert Rosenberg’s This Is Not Civilization. I second all of these recommendations, and also suggest picking up Bissell’s collection of short fiction set in or connected to Central Asia, God Lives in St. Petersburg. A new review of this book appeared the other day and it is much like earlier ones–positive but odd.

For nonfiction, Bissell recommends Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game and Jihad by Ahmed Rashid.

Nonfiction being a more fertile (and personally more interesting) area of works, I have many additional recommendations. As complements to The Great Game, I suggest Hopkirk’s Setting the East Ablaze, though a good deal of its content can be substituted with primary sources–namely the memoirs of Lt. Colonel F. M. Bailey in Mission to Tashkent and Paul Nazaroff in Hunted Through Central Asia. All of these books deal with the period during which the Bolsheviks established control in the region, and Bailey’s is an especially enjoyable read. Where else is one as likely to find a story about a man who has infiltrated the Cheka being sent to arrest himself?

Other suggestions:

  • Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is an engaging history of the Mongol Empire that is worth reading even though its thesis is too ambitious.
  • Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light, about one of the author’s trips in Afghanistan, is a rarity for travel literature in that Elliot clearly understands (though over-identifies with at times) the land he is writing about. (Reviewed earlier here)
  • The memoirs of Sven Hedin, My Life As An Explorer, cover the author’s travels throughout inner Asia.
  • I don’t remember too many particulars about Monica Whitlock’s Land Beyond The River, which aspires to be a people’s history of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and northern Afghanistan from the early 20th century to present, but I do remember enjoying it quite a bit.
  • The Man Who Would Be King: The First American In Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre is the astonishing story of Josiah Harlan, a Quaker from Chester County, Pennsylvania, who had aspirations of being a new Alexander the Great and made his way to Afghanistan, joined the fight against the British, and gained the title of Prince of Ghor.
  • I also have to recommend Tom Bissell’s first book, Chasing the Sea, as it is one of my favorite reads on modern Uzbekistan.

There are some other suggestions in the comments to Bissell’s article, including The Baburnama. Most of these books can be had for fairly low prices used on Amazon.

Any suggestions for other inclusions, such as scholarly works?

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Alexander June 27, 2006 at 12:47 am

Hamid Ismailov’s “The Railway”, published earlier this year by Harvill, is a must for this list. It is one of the very few novels by an Uzbek author (though written originally in Russian) to have been translated into English, and reads rather like an Islamic biographical dictionary of the kind that were produced in large numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries describing the miraculous activities of saints (think a slightly bawdy Uzbek version of magical realism with more characters than it is possible to keep track of).

The best 19th c. European travellers’ account is undoubtedly Eugene Schuyler’s “Turkistan”, but Curzon’s “Russia in Central Asia” is also excellent, and Alexander Burnes’s “Travels into Bokhara” also deserves a mention.

Amongst histories of the region Svat Soucek’s is OK as a one-volume introduction, but you need to look to pretty hefty volumes such as Sinor’s “History of Inner Asia” for more detailed information. No harm in having a look at the “Secret History of the Mongols” either if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Alexander June 27, 2006 at 1:11 am

I should also mention Beatrice Forbes Manz’s “The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane”, which is available as a Verso paperback from Cambridge University Press. Thackston’s translation of the Baburnama is excellent, and it’s an amazingly engaging text. Count K.K. Pahlen’s translated Memoirs: “Mission to Turkestan” are the most accesible Russian account of the region. The best academic monographs to have appeared on 19th century Central Asia in recent years are Adeeb Khalid’s “The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform. Jadidism in Central Asia”, Daniel Brower’s “Turkestan and the Fate of the Russian Empire” and Hodong Kim’s “Holy War in China” (which is about Yakub Beg’s Emirate in Kashgar), but these are unlikely to interest the traveller or casual reader. As for modern travel books on the region, my favourite is Colin Thubron’s “The Lost Heart of Asia”. His “In Siberia” is also highly recommended.

Alexander June 27, 2006 at 1:17 am

Sorry, I’m rather monopolising this discussion. I notice that Bissell recommends Ahmed Rashid’s imaginatively titled “Jihad” as a primer on the “Islamic threat” to Central Asia. I would beg to disagree here. Rashid’s book on the Taliban was excellent, because he had spent years in Afghanistan and fully understood how their rise was bound up with Pakistani politics, the ISI and the smuggling mafia of the tribal areas in Baluchistan and the N.W.F.P. This does not translate into an expertise on the Post-Soviet states of Central Asia, and in my view he grossly exaggerates the Islamic threat by projecting the religious extremist attitudes prevalent in much of Pakistan and Afghanistan onto Central Asians, whose history over the last eighty years has been radically different.

Nick June 27, 2006 at 2:04 am

From the travel perspective, I would add Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”, which is a wonderfully wry account of an attempt by a pair of amateur climbers to ascend the Hindu Kush (and being called a “pair of pansies” by Wilfred Thesiger), and also Nick Danziger’s imaginitively-titled “Danziger’s Travels”, which some people may find a little over-preening and egotisitical but nevertheless is a highly-enagaging account of a hair-raising journey across Asia, particularly the section about Afghanistan (which he crossed on foot at the height of the Socviet occupation).

Laurence June 27, 2006 at 8:11 am

How about Gary Shteyngart’s ABSURDISTAN? I’m reading it now, and it is pretty funny. Not a scholarly book though, a comic novel. Kathleen Hopkirk’s CENTRAL ASIA: A TRAVELLER’S COMPANION is a good survey. On a more scholarly note, Martha Brill Olcott’s book CENTRAL ASIA’S SECOND CHANCE has a lot of interesting facts and figures brought together from a variety of sources. I would agree with Alexander on Lord Curzon’s RUSSIA IN CENTRAL ASIA. Curzon once said something like: “Don’t be a Russophobe or a Russophile, be a realist about Russia.” If only American policy-makers would take his advice to heart, today…

Otto Pohl June 27, 2006 at 6:09 pm

If you are taking an expansive view of Central Asia I would include Kipling’s, _Kim_ which was Hopkirk’s inspiration to research the “Great Game.” Hopkirk also has a book tracing the real people and places _Kim_ is based upon called _In Search of Kim_. If you are a fan of _Kim_ I highly recommend Hopkirk’s book on the novel. Karl Meyer’s _Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland_ is a good general introduction to the region. Also a good companion to Hopkirk’s _The Great Game_ is Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, _Tournament of Shadows_. For a good read on the British in the NWFP there is Charles Allen, _Soldier Sahibs: The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier_. I have a list of scholarly works on Kazakhstan and Central Asia under Soviet rule somewhere in the archives of my blog.

Dennis June 27, 2006 at 9:00 pm

I second the Shteyngart recommendation. He attended college near Cleveland (Oberlin College), which has a very large post-Soviet population, including many Russian-speaking Jews. He wrote his senior thesis on The Republic of Moldova, The Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan. His first book, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” is so “right on” that I had to set it down I was laughing so hard.

Are there any recommendations on fiction/non-fiction from or about Eastern Europe or the Caucasus? (Excluding the obvious–Solzhenitsyn and Romanian poets/authors like Creanga or Eminescu) I just thought I’d ask…

Nick June 28, 2006 at 2:08 am

Dennis, I recently read a very strange and wonderful novel by an English writer, DM Thomas, called Ararat. It was published about 25-years ago and, as the the title indicates, is sort of about Armenia – though it’s as much as literary exercise in playing with narrative roles and creative inspiration. Tbh, I picked it up at a bookstall on account of it’s title alone, assuming that it must be in some way be connected with the film of the same name by Atom Egoyan; it’s not, but it’s the sort of pleasant surprise one gets when one picks up something solely on the basis of a gut-instinct.

Nathan June 29, 2006 at 10:30 pm

Has anyone read Colin Thurbon’s stuff? I found it engaging, if a bit melancholy. “Lost Heart of Asia” (or something like that) is a great overview and traveler’s perspective.

Otto Pohl June 30, 2006 at 3:30 am

I have read Thurbon’s _Lost Heart of Asia_ and his book on Siberia. The Central Asian book is better in my opinion. It is much less melancholy than his Siberian book by the way.

Although technically not a travel book, _The Devil and the Dissapearing Sea_ is also definitely worth reading for a sketch of how the Uzbek government works on a micro level. The author is a Canadian working with an ngo to try and save the Aral Sea. He concludes that it is hopeless.

Alexander June 30, 2006 at 5:51 am

It’s Thubron, not Thurbon

Lucy July 2, 2006 at 3:06 pm

Colin Thubron has just written a new book ‘Shadows of the Silk Road’ coming out in September. I think it’s an attempt to update his previous look at Central Asia, whilst also bringing in China etc.

I agree with all Alexander’s books above and certainly The Railway. Also, a new book “The Silent Steppe” by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov which chronicles his early life during the sedenterization and collectivization of the Kazakhs under Stalin.

Tamerlane by Justin Marozzi is a good read and gives a real feel for what Samarkand once was with 25 gardens surrounding the city which Timur moved between with his tents when he wasn’t on campaign.

For historical accounts (which all seem to be by women) there are Ella Maillart’s Turkestan Solo, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan by Lady Macartney, A Journal of the First Afghan War by Lady Florentia Sale. I could go on and on. This should be a good start though!

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