Ostensibly, “Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of
Empire in Central Asia” is a book about one of the
world’s greatest ecological disasters. The once proud Aral
Sea, in 1960 the size of Lake Michigan, has been reduced to 30
percent of its former volume, devastating the economic welfare of
the surrounding regions in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Tom Bissell,
in his first solo book, bravely sets out across this tortured
landscape to document the stunning misery left in the
disaster’s wake.

Kate Green

Well, sort of.

Bissell’s book is an unusual blend of adventure
travelogue, memoir and historical study. His voyages throughout
Uzbekistan with his comical translator Rustam consume most of the
narrative and provide a vibrant cultural panorama of the country.
Only in the final chapter does he arrive in Karakalpakistan, the
region hardest hit by the drying of the Aral Sea.

Bissell doesn’t indulge in pomp; he is forthcoming with
his weaknesses. His powerful narration is studded with candid
— and often funny — admissions of his humanity: His
stomach is extraordinarily sensitive, his knowledge of Russian and
Uzbek is limited and his first experience in the former Soviet
republic was a woeful, aborted stint as a Peace Corps
volunteer.

These various side-tangents form a series of compelling subplots
laced with a strychnine wit. His explanation of the “Bald =
Reform” theory of Russian progress (hairless Russian leaders
have been the standard bearers of forward-thinking political
change), for example, ends in a precious observation regarding
current Russian President Vladimir Putin, in saying: “He
looked bald but in fact had a good amount of hair.”

Bissell punctuates the frankness of his narrative with many such
barbs, granting his moral judgments a fellow-traveler legitimacy of
which he does not shrink from taking advantage of. His description
of the human rights situation under the post-Soviet regime is
horrifying and poignant. Likewise, his tour of a tuberculosis
dispensary in the final chapter exposes health standards verging on
the surreal. These passages are conveyed with sympathy and respect
for the people of Uzbekistan, whom he quotes extensively. Bissell
does not seek merely to shock his readers, but to promote
understanding.

It is in the reconciliation of this lofty goal with his humorous
tone that Bissell sometimes stumbles. Shrewd critics have
particularly noted that Bissell’s admitted lack of fluency in
Uzbek or Russian leads to some linguistic blunders in his writings.
In one instance, he recycles the tired and false cliché that
the Russian word “vodka” literally means “little
water.”

Setting such minor foibles aside, however, Bissell’s book
is a startlingly clever entry in its subject. What “Chasing
the Sea” lacks in erudition, it compensates for with smart,
engaging prose. While most readers aren’t immediately gripped
by the idea of a documented sojourn through a forlorn Central Asian
republic, Bissell pulls his reader into the world of Uzbekistan and
never completely lets go. In the end, we are left feeling the
persistent tug of a tell-tale phantom limb.

Rating: 4 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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