Chasing the Sea
Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697)
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 199698)
TOM BISSELLS BOOK IS BITTERSWEET and hurts in the way that exceptional writing should. In his exploration of the biggest ecological disaster of our time, the gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea, he exposes the American reader to a topic that has probably escaped her/his noticed. It does, however, accomplish more than merely enlighten an audience in regard to this environmental travesty. It also revolves around a personal catharsis of sorts.
In 1996, Bissell began Peace Corps service as an English teacher in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. After seven months, he ETd, or early terminated, deciding that continuing his service was not in his best interest as a result of constant physical illness, mental fatigue, and stressors related to loved ones back home. He returned to the United States and found a publishing job in NYC. His experience in Uzbekistan, however difficult, stuck with him. After several years, he felt compelled to go back. A proposed magazine article led to the trip that would later grow into Chasing the Sea: Lost among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia.
Early Termination can have a painful stigma attached to it. Peace Corps assignments can be very different, as Volunteers are different individuals with different expectations. It can be hard for other Volunteers from other areas of service, or sometimes even from the same country, to feel sympathy for those who decide it isnt for them. Also, conditions of Volunteers vary drastically from country to country and region to region. Bissells personal journey, that of an ETd Volunteer returning to his country of service, is difficult for him and, as a result, difficult for the reader, as well.
Early in the book, Bissell establishes a young, but shockingly thoughtful and informed voice. Bissells Authors Note is one of those early moments, in which he describes the strange feeling of failure that accompanied the decision to leave Uzbekistan, made more surreal because the failure had no personal negative repercussions. He describes the resulting feeling as a heart-nibbling sort of reflection that leaves one wracked with a sense of inadequacy difficult to explain to oneself, much less anyone else. In part, these unexplainable feelings, which he does an excellent job of explaining, are what he is attempting to understand, if not exorcise, in his return to Uzbekistan.
In the midst of the sensitive personal nature of the trip and the ostensible foray to assess the deterioration of the Aral Sea (which comes to stand for a more abstract form of deterioration), Bissells sense of discovery is surprising. Bissell is a travel/adventure writer after all. A reader cant help but react to the parade of characters that he interacts with in the course of his travels. Bissell does a laudable job of being fair to his subjects. Some are appealing for their aesthetic value. For instance, the two Russian soldiers who crash the party at the mountain top funeral, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and toting assault rifles are just perfect. Other characters, similarly equipped, evoke a very different reaction. For those who have traveled in countries where the police or military are to be avoided, his run-ins with the Uzbek militsiya provoke a palpable anxiety.
Rustam, Bissells translator is a more prominent character in the book. Rustam accompanies Bissell through most of his trip. Their relationship is tenuous, especially at first. RPCVs might recognize Rustam as the quintessential young intelligent HCN (Host Country National) from their country of service. While it may be unfair to characterize Rustam as standing in for all Uzbeks, a diverse categorization of people, he definitely serves as a litmus test to Bissells decidedly American presence. While their relationship begins as that of outsider to translator, it develops into a moving and sincere friendship. This relationship is a very satisfying part of the book.
Bissell intersperses the events of his trip with his past experiences in Uzbekistan. He also periodically brings in the extensive history of the country from varied sources. One gets the impression that he has done his homework. In fact, hes included a semi-annotated bibliography of those sources. The different contexts he brings to the book via these three perspectives speak to each other and create a broader picture than any one context could alone.
Bissells sense of humor is effective, dry and cynical in places, but the kind of humor which gets you through trying moments. There are moments in which one cannot help but laugh out loud. At the same time though, it is a nervous laughter, often of a gallows humor type. This kind of humor fits the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the former Soviet republics.
Description is another of Bissells strengths. Obviously, this is important in a travelogue. One of the most poignant sights is visited near the end of the book. The description of the abandoned shipyard at Moynaq is especially surreal and eerie. Moynaq, a fishing town once surrounded by water, is now miles away from the Aral Sea, which is continuing to recede. Bissell sees children playing soccer on the old sea bed among the stalagmite-like salt deposits. Salt peppers the landscape like snow. With a contact from Doctors Without Borders, an organization that supported his journalistic endeavors in the area, he visits beached ships abandoned to the sand and wind.
We are left with the image of Moynaq in our vision. Moynaq, a town dependent on the sea, has no more sea. But still, people remain. They get poorer and sicker, but persevere. But one wonders for what purpose. This ending doesnt really provide much closure. Thats the point. Bissell adeptly shifts some of the ownership of the weighty issues he deals with onto the reader. One gets the sense that closure is something to work for in ones own life, in terms of the receding sea and all that it means. You cant just discover that sort of closure in a book. It requires going somewhere.
Bissells book is especially pertinent to those interested in Central Asian history, prospective or current PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), RPCVs (Returned . . .), and anyone interested in the former republics of the Soviet Union. But if given the chance, the book will satisfy a wide variety of readers.
To put it simply, this book is not to be missed.
Paul Shovlin was a TEFL Volunteer in Moldova, Eastern Europe. Since then he has relocated in Athens, Ohio and is starting a Ph.D. program at Ohio University in Rhetoric and Composition.