THERE IS NO DEARTH of idealism in William C. Duncans brief memoir, Uzbekistan: A Short Road Traveled. The author, who served in Uzbekistan in 2001, has taken the Peace Corps goal to bring the world back home to heart. Duncan wants the reader to feel what it was like to adapt to a new life, to enter a new country with very little idea of what lies ahead. That this is a self-published book demonstrates his commitment to sharing his experience with others.
The story of his days in Uzbekistan on the eve of September 11th makes an intriguing and timely premise. The author barely began his service when Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated after the terror attacks. Duncans memoir records what will forever remain first impressions, as he and his group just begin to adapt to their lives overseas before they are all withdrawn from the country.
Idealism, however, does not always translate into readability. Reviewing a book like this presents a bit of a dilemma I admire Duncans effort to publish his story by his own efforts, but I am unable to say that Uzbekistan is a very well-written book.
The author seems to have taken most of the text directly from his diary, but without the kind of thorough editing and contextualizing that would help his story appeal to a general audience. Duncan provides very little information about the country itself, and what information he offers is either inaccurate or irrelevant. His text is littered with grammatical errors and typos, tenses change from past to present in the same sentence, and redundancies abound, which relieve me to see that he was a Business Development Volunteer, rather than an English teacher.
Duncans narrative relies almost entirely on simple platitudes (Packing for this adventure was an incredible challenge), not all of which are semantically or grammatically correct (Our new lifestyles were starting to show their ugly head), and some of which are plainly awkward (I had always wanted to see Turkey, a country veiled in ancient history and forbidden tales). The reader frequently encounters passages notable for their inscrutability: After dinner we had a session on the local music with our teachers who demonstrated dance steps that we could use if we attended any weddings or parties . . . . It was pretty entertaining for me because I have a few moves of my own.
The most interesting part of the book is the final chapter, when he deals with the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Duncan describes the confusion and fear that gripped his group of Volunteers, and details the many kindnesses, which the Uzbek people showed him in terrors aftermath. It is here, at the very end, that his writing provides the kind of insight that explains what made him want to write this book:
Thinking back only a few days ago, when I last left the bus in Uzbekistan, I imagined I was walking down the dusty street in my village with images of yesterday still in my head . . .. The hugs, kisses, and tears could still be felt as I try to get on with my life, waiting for whats up ahead, just down the road.
Uzbekistan: A Short Road Traveled reveals the essential caveat of writing a travel memoir to convey a unique, personal experience to a wider audience is difficult, even if it is an audience of like-minded people. The best writers know how to essentialize their story, adding the context that renders the unfamiliar accessible, compressing the myriad memories into a few well-polished images that can stir and haunt the reader. Duncan does not quite manage it, and it is a shame, because he has a story that is worth telling.
Joshua Abrams lives and works in Tajikistan. He has written on Central Asia for the Old Town Review (www.oldtownreview.com) and the Baltimore Sun, and had a Peace Corps memoir piece in the January 2005 issue of Peace Corps Writers.