Reviewed by Michael Meyer (China 1995-97)
As SARS crippled Beijing in 2003, a handful of fellow former Peace Corps China volunteers and I waited out the weeks with bad red wine and the fear that comes from being thirty and far from home, uncertain how to continue freelance writing when editors stopped buying stories that were not about the virus and its cover-up. The Moscow-based Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Tayler provided unexpected succor then; we passed around his forward to Facing the Congo, a small masterpiece of an essay on existential angst and the desire to achieve something as a writer by age thirty-three — “the age of Christ!” according to the Russian saying. He accepted the challenge, and then some, setting off in a pirogue and recreating Stanley’s exploration of the Congo River. The result was a tight narrative driven by self-introspection and curiosity of an under-reported region.
Two years after SARS, when I answered my Beijing phone to learn my first book had sold, those same old friends whooped and said, “just before the age of Christ!” And now, five years later, I come to Tayler at another crossroads: how to kick wanderlust and settle down from a post-Peace Corps existence of travel and expatriate life. Aside from maudlin discoveries such as “How lost we all are, how alone,” no pithy dares await between the covers of Murderers in Mausoleums, Tayler’s account of his 7,200-mile overland journey between Moscow and Beijing, in which the author departs from his wife and sets out to see why, in the post-Cold War world, democracy and Western ideals have not caught hold in the formerly marginalized (and often brutalized) fringes of the former Soviet Union and beyond.
The book is set in 2006 (why the late publication date?), so the answer is weighted heavily by Russia and China’s then-booming petrodollar-and-export driven economies - along with America’s military. The men Tayler encounter call Bush names, curse the Iraq war (yet, curiously, never involvement Kosovo or Serbia) and frequently end their brief, boozy one-page appearances with “sinewy fists clenched on the table” and growled exclamations such as, “You can never know our history, or even appreciate it!” or - from a man in Dagestan - “If you dare fight us we’ll never surrender!” By page seventy-nine, Tayler writes, “I reflected on all the anger I was hearing on this trip (and had heard over the past fourteen years in Russia)” but the vitriol is just simmering to a three-hundred page boil. Perhaps those quoted within would be tempered by Obama’s election and a global economy intertwined in recession, but on this ambitious trip, Tayler deserves credit for deciding “to eschew pundits and talk with whomever came my way,” doing vodka shots and translating all these “ill-reasoned outbursts” from Russian or Turkish, which he speaks.
And the women he meets? They “avert their eyes bashfully,” are “buxom but thin,” “fresh but svelte,” “tanned and shapely,” “kohl-eyed and sexy,” have “hair tousled sensuously” or “luscious raven locks peeking out from a headscarf,” “almond eyes,” and bones “delicate but ensconced in a comfy embonpoint.” He drinks champagne with an old acquaintance in a steamy rathskellar, enjoys beers with a comely woman in a dining car, and spends a foggy-brained spell in a Chinese bar named Touch with women half his age. Tayler remains chaste on the page, however, deftly reproducing the thrill and release of the instant intimacy travel engenders. After weeks of plodding through stories of “blood feuds and bomb-splattered guts,” awful hotels, searing temperatures and run-ins with that most terrifying of all road encounters: the expat oilrig worker’s pub, Tayler’s attraction to a friendly face is understandable.
Though, I wish he had been as seduced by a single place. The book’s most revealing passages occur when Tayler slows his pace, taking readers into a former Soviet labor camp in Kazakhstan, where the now-grown descendents of former German-speaking prisoners still live; to the home of an Ossetian historian; and a lovely section revisiting the hometown of Lermontov, a poet with whom he shares a deep connection, and where he “feels alone and far from home, wherever that was.”
Peace Corps imbues volunteers with an appreciation for being idle and observing a place and people change over time. Tayler’s language and assimilation abilities allow him to do this in Moscow, where has lived since 1993, yet about which he has not produced a book. It’s one I would want to read, if not completely comprehend. Here is Tayler’s one-off description in Murderers in Mausoleums of a Russian city he passes through:
Now it was summer, and all was awash in the lambent light of endless evening. We jumped off the tram and took a battered marshrutka (a minivan outfitted with benches and used as a shared taxi) down pot-holed roads, through slanting columns of amber sun falling on umber houses, izbas on which elaborately carved bright blue wooden frames encased glinting panes of glass, and red gutters that ran along the edges of bare steel roofs. The aspens and maples and rosebushes and honeysuckle and peonies overgrew the walkways and yards. Here in Novocherkassk reigned the sleepy spirit of Goncharov’s fainéant hero, Oblomov, the dreamy ambiance of a Turgenev novel.
About China - where the final one-fifth of the book is set - Tayler is not as sure-handed or clear-eyed, though he speaks some Chinese. The entire book is absent humor - unlike Theroux, Tayler never jokes - but the morose tone is surprising to encounter in China, where, frankly, life can be downright funny, especially to Chinese attempting to navigate the fathomless currents of societal change. In reading the China sections - a visit to Genghis Khan’s tomb, a brief stop at Mao’s in Beijing - I thought of the beer-bellied British Midlands expats Tayler gently mocked earlier for not grasping the communities in which they work (beyond peddled flesh). As Tayler spends nights in a Chinese bar drinking Sprite-sweetened wine and making small talk with a cast of club-goers who pay him great attention, I flipped back to something he wrote earlier in his trip, which is true in the new, weird China, too, and made me want to read his take on Russia all the more:
In Russia, Murat’s loony tales didn’t really stand out. Conspiracy theories abound, psychics enjoy cult followings, many prefer folk healers to regular doctors, and suspicious of all “official” truths is a sign of sophistication. Reality is for naïve bumpkins.
Michael Meyer’s first book is The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He is working on a book about the Manchurian rice farm where his wife grew up.