Out of the stacks at the SFU Library, I picked out a book by travel author (I don’t know if there is a better term for his writing) Colin Thurbron. The reason I was interested in the book was geographical. I am interested, mostly historically, in the region of what is termed “Central Asia,” such as Kazakhstan and Kyryzstan. As both Wikipedia and Thurbron notes, the prefix “stan” means, in Persian, “land of.” (Central Asia – Wikipedia)

Picking somewhat random books of the shelf is not unusual for me, although I end up reading more than 10 pages of probably only one out of every three, sometimes because I have too much to read, and sometimes because it wasn’t what I expected or hoped. What was unusual in this case was the way in which Thurbron draws in the reader with what is, quite simply, some of the best (and most eloquent) descriptive prose I have ever read. The author’s command of the English language is phenomenal and he makes the characters and places he visited come to life.

Unlike with some of my other reading, I won’t be pulling quotes out of it beyond this post, witch will be the only one on this book,  but I do want to give you a taste of his writing:

“Soon we had a triple blaze of fires going. The samovars were cremated in a nest of flaming branches, the shashlik oozed and spat over charcoal heaps, and the stewing-pot — into which Murad has tossed a calf’s head — simmered balefully on a brick hob. the men’s faces lit up in sybaratic grins. The bitterness left the big man’s mouth. and the Mongoloid’s face dimpled with glee.”

“‘Isn’t this better than home?’ he cried, as we settled ceremoniously on the carpet. ‘Nothing compares with this!’

“Soon the shashlik was being thrust triumphantly from hand to hand. Dribllling blood and fat, it was tough as rope. But the three men swalled each morsel wholesale, or clamped it between their teeth like mastiffs and worried it to and fro, until it separated with a noise like tearing sheets. They celebrated every mouthful with a carnivorous burp, and dipped gluttonously into mountains of radishes and olives. The brief respites between skewers resounded with an anticipatory griding of gold and ivory molars and the smack of oily lips. At any moment, I thought, they might break into shamanistic chant or propose a raid. The time was not long past when their ancestors had cantered eighty miles a day to harvest Persian slaves — the Mongoloid’s father might just have known it — and the desert still seemed subtly to nourish them. Their earthquake-stricken country gave no confidence in building, or perhaps any permanence at all. Better the open sky!”

“Assiduously they plied me with the tenderest chunks of shashlik, but my teeth recoiled even from these. I smuggled them out of my mouth and secreted them wherever I could: in the bush behind me, under the sand between my knees, in my shirt pockets. Murad kept thrusting more at me, the point of his skewer threatening my chest. But he was grinning with hospitality. They all were. The big man detached the most succulent nuggets to press on me, with the crispest onions. But soon my pockets sagged with the telltale meat, and a betraying stain of fat was spreading across my shirt-front.”

“As I masticated despairingly on another hunk, I bit on something hard, and assumed it was mutton-bone. Then I realised that it was one of my own bones I was chewing. I had lost a tooth. Neurotically I ran my tongue back and forth over the gap. Nobody else noticed. I longed to inspect it in a mirror, but I could picture it well enough: the double rank of ivory now breached by a slovenly void, as obvious as a fainted guardsman.”

Book info:

Colin Thurbron, The Lost Heart of Asia, Heinemann,  London 1994. 367p without index


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