Tom Bissell’s Chasing the Sea is easily the best book I have ever read on Uzbekistan. We all know it’s the only one too, but despite the unfunny joke I really did enjoy this work quite a bit.
After washing out of the Peace Corps after being in Uzbekistan a few months, Bissell returned in 2002 for an assignment by Harper’s. The former Soviet republic has been plagued with issues, from ecological crises to rampant inflation, and given his contacts in the region, Bissell seemed an ideal choice. Primarily intending to focus on the rapid depletion of the Aral Sea, what one gets as they read is a sense of what modern Uzbekistan is truly like, as well as the history of the Central Asian nation, both before and after the Soviet government.
Quickly joining his translator Rustam, Bissell begins to proceed in a somewhat haphazard fashion, hitting contacts within the Peace Corps and taking his time looking at historical places. Rustam is sort of a sidekick on the adventure, and he provides a lens for Bissell to comment on Uzbekistan through the eyes of a native citizen. Of course, Bissell often uses other people for the same purpose, easily giving an account of events through opposing factions in what reads as easy and conversational.
Where one often sees seams in such narratives involves the introduction of historical facts into the narrative, but Bissell does a tremendous job of only providing the reader with information as it becomes necessary to contextualize things we see through his eyes or discussions that arise between he and others. The passages are never so long that one loses the primary narrative, and are always greatly informative. As someone whose many interests include the history of Islam, it was fascinating to get a history of the region extending back to the time of the Roman Empire. Typical westerners think of Islamic countries as being primarily in Persia and the Middle East, and I myself am guilty of not really understanding the role Islam plays in an often overlooked part of the world.
Though the purpose of his visit is primarily to investigate conditions of the Aral Sea, Bissell doesn’t even make it there until the last chapter, 300 pages into the book. At first this irked me a little, but I feel that the way this assignment was approached allowed me to really understand a lot about Uzbekistan and those who live there. That is a topic more interesting to me than the ecological catastrophe in the region, anyway.
Bissell leaves Rustam before traveling to the Aral Sea, promising to meet up with him when he gets back. But the book ends before his return, leaving this reader with a real lack of fulfillment with regards to his story. Though real life often interferes with natural story arcs, it would have been nice to at least see him acknowledged within the last fifty pages.
After reading this account of Uzbekistan, it is easy to see the influence his time in the region has had on his fiction. Though none of the stories in God Lives in St. Petersburg seem taken from these experiences, the tone of the fiction matches the tone struck here. I will be interested to read further fiction by Bissell with this knowledge in mind.
But perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me was the fact that Chasing the Sea is billed as a travel book. Up until now, I had always considered travel books to be the sort of things one buys to point out all the shopping and museums in a town or region, like a book published by Lonely Planet and the like. Now that I have seen what the genre can be, I am excited that I get to approach this new section of the book world freshly. Chasing the Sea is a fascinating and at times heart breaking account of an overlooked nation, one that like Bissell’s book deserves not to be.