The good road ended like all good roads do
The good road ended like all good roads do
Kleveman’s book updates and explores the ‘Great Game’, played by Russia and the British in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in pursuit of their respective imperial goals in the 19th century and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim.
Russia still features as a main player in the New Great Game and is joined by the US, Iran, China and the countries of Central Asia and the Causcasus. The prizes in this game are the oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea.
The New Great Game is a compelling piece of reportage. Having driven round the Balkans in 1999-2000 in an old Citroen CX25 reporting on the ongoing ethnic conflict and the revolution against the Milosevic regime and also reporting on blood diamonds, child soldiers and oil in West Africa, Kleveman’s attention turned to the Caucasus. So, in August 2001, Kleveman set out from Berlin on a road trp to Baku in Azerbaijan (again in a Citroen CX25).
Prevented from entering Chechnya by Russian security services, Kleveman was “after five days of interrogation (and heavy vodka-drinking) […] expelled from Russia on the fateful day of September 11, 2011.” He eventually managed to reach Baku by train where he became increasingly interested in Caucasus oil politics.
Shortly afterwards, after a visit to Uzbekistan during the US led Afghan war, Kleveman became “hooked” on Central Asia.
According to his website, he then spent most of 2002 “zigzagging the region and meeting with the principal actors of the New Great Game about oil and pipelines: Kazakh oil barons, US generals, Russian diplomats, Afghan warlords.” His travels and research took him through Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia, Iran and arose the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, the deserts and steppe of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before heading to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and Krygystan and finally to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the New Great Game, Kleveman argues (for summaries see here…and here) that the Caucasus and Central Asia are the focus of a struggle for the gas and oil reserves of the Caspian Sea. As known reserves of fossil fuels elsewhere in the world dwindle while demand for them soars, the prospect of new reserves outside of OPEC’s influence area a truly valuable prize. The break up of the Soviet Union, coupled with the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian region has therefore given the US an unprecedented opportunity to court the former Soviet republics to attempt to secure access to these reserves and so lessen its dependence on OPEC oil supplies.
As the Caspian is landlocked, transporting the oil and gas to the sea so that it can be shipped to markets around the world is a major challenge. This requires the construction of thousand mile pipelines to the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean if a route through Russia is to be avoided. As any pipeline must therefore go though either Iran or former Soviet republics (regarded by Russia as still being within its sphere of influence), Kleveman reports that the various countries of the region are jostling to accommodate the pipelines and to reap the rewards of the transit fees and to guarantee their independence from Russia. Add to this mix the oil thirsty countries vying to secure access to the reserves and it becomes apparent that the competition in this game is fierce and the stakes high as the players make their moves and countermoves.
Kleveman’s book sweeps across the region providing a masterly overview of the ‘New Great Game’ and its complexities. Kleveman puts himself at considerable risk to obtain his interviews and is often than not rewarded for those risks. The characters he meets are larger than life with extraordinary stories to tell that bring to life the region, its history and its turbulent present. More reportage rather than a ‘classic’ travel narrative, it is nonetheless Kleveman’s travel throughout the region and the on the spot interviews which the give the book its detail and immediacy and prevent it from being simply a book about oil and gas geopolitics (examples of photos taken on his travels are on his website).
Now several years old, it would be interesting to know what the current state of play in the New Great Game is. However, although the pieces may have moved, The New Great Game is still a fascinating portrait of a region and a snapshot of how the board looked at the time the book was written.
“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again.”
Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the most celebrated and controversial journalists and authors of the second half of the last century. Famous for his books on Ethiopia, Iran and Russia, it seems impossible to give an account of his long career without repeating that he had witnessed 27 coups and revolutions.
Kapuscinski died in 2007 and Travels with Herodotus was his final book. In Travels, we encounter Kapuscinski in Cold War Poland as a young journalist for whom the outside world was a fairy-tale. Before his first foreign assignment to India, the young Kapuscinski is given a copy of The Histories by his editor.
So begins a journey following Kapuscinski’s own travels as he reports from around the globe intertwined with his own pursuit of Herodotus through the pages of The Histories. For Kapuscinski, Herodotus becomes part companion and part patron saint of foreign correspondents through whom Kapuscinski articulates/formulates his own theory of reportage by celebrating Herodotus’ spirit of inquiry.
Giving the keynote speech at the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2003, Kapuscinski hailed Herodotus as “my first reporter, our father and master, the forerunner of a genre” and The Histories as an “exemplary specimen of reportage” in which the three sources of reportage could be found: travel, people and the reporter’s homework (“reading what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions, or graphic symbols”).
This last source is important for Kapuscinski as it “shows us how to be investigative and precise”. Kapuscinski notes that Herodotus was well-read and that “he also deciphered inscriptions and symbols on temples and town walls. Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or a new meaning”.
Returning from his first foreign assignment to India, Kapuscinski recalls that he “returned from this journey, embarrassed at how ill-read [he] was” and through this “failure” set about reading voraciously about the places he was to visit realising that he needed to prepare “thoroughly and at length for such an encounter”:
With each new title I read, I felt as if I were undertaking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew. These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one. I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs. What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image etc, something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.”
In his preparation and reading Kapuscinski was able to experience a more layered and multidimensional journey and so reveals an attraction of reading travel literature – to supplement the physical journey and to provide the mental tools to unlock meanings and messages where mere observation may not succeed.
This thorough preparation may also have fuelled Kapuscinski’s “literary reportage” for which his books have fuelled controversy.
Kapuscisnki made no secret of the fact that he found the language of conventional journalism to be inadequate “when confronting the rich, varied, colourful, ineffable reality of [third world] cultures, customs and beliefs.”
In an interview with Bill Buford for Granta in 1987, Kapuscinski explained that “It’s not that the story is not getting expressed: It’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”
To avoid areas of reality being rendered “beyond the sphere of description”, Kapuscinski unapologetically “blurred genres”, taking as his cue Capote, Mailer and Garcia Marquez, whose work he noted “straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle”. The result, “is the creative result of a combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing”.
This was not just carelessness. Kapuscinski kept two note books (whether metaphorically or literally); one for his journalism and the other for his literary reportage and he was amused by critical complaints of his work:
Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid. If those are the questions that you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.”
Although writing where “descriptions of real events, true stories and accidents are supplemented with the writer’s personal opinions and reactions, and often with fictional asides to add colour; with the techniques and manners of fiction” may not be regarded as “straight journalism”, it can make great travel writing.
Paradoxically, however, despite praising Herodutus’ inquiring style and precision in Travels, the book’s central conceit may just be a literary device rather than biographical fact. It has been noted that one will search in vain for references to Herodotus elsewhere in Kapuscinski’s work, which could be considered odd if Herodotus had been Kapuscinski’s life long companion and mentor (Bissell).
Sara Wheeler’s review of Travels with Herodotus for the Guardian is here. Tom Bissell’s New York Times review is here, while Tahir Shah’s review for the Washington Post is here, and Jason Burke’s for the Literary Review is here.
For an in-depth discussion of Kapuscinski’s work and where reportage ends and literature begins featuring Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslawski, at a Frontline Club event, see here:
Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (2012); First published 1933
“Wings! With a winged ship, I could still be a vagabond, but a vagabond
with the clouds for my province, as well as the continents.”
Born in 1900 and a graduate of Princeton, Halliburton’s life might have followed a more conventional path were it not for his insatiable desire for excitement and adventure.
Running off to travel in England and France while at Princeton, Halliburton wrote to his father making it clear that he did not intend to return his life to “an even tenor”, writing to his father:
“I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed”
Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921 and was true to his word. Idolising youthful heroes such as Byron, TE Lawrence, George Mallory, Rupert Brooke, Halliburton set out to create a life of adventure for himself. On the strength of his daring, his good looks, journalism and tireless theatrical lecturing, Halliburton became a celebrity with best selling books like Royal Road to Romance and The Glorious Adventure (also available for free, here), recounting his journeys around the world during the 1920s and adhering to his simple philosophy:
Let those who wish have their respectability, I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.
After losing a fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Halliburton had to scrape the money together for his next adventure, flying around the world in a two seater, open cockpit Stearman biplane which he christened The Flying Carpet and wrote about in the eponymous book.
Halliburton could not fly, so enlisted experienced pilot Moye Stephens to fly the plane offering him no wage but unlimited expenses. After shipping the Flying Carpet to England, the pair embarked on a 40,000 mile journey taking in Saharan Africa,, Europe, the Middle East, India and South East Asia, before putting the Flying Carpet back on a ship to sail for San Francisco. (Read more about the journey here and here.)
Their trip was daring and pioneering. Lindbergh had only made his solo flight across the Atlantic a few years earlier. They had no support. Shell Oil had kindly given them the location of an oil tank in the Sahara at which they could refuel although finding it meant following tyre tracks across the desert. The journey had plenty of romance; they met maharajahs and took princes and princesses up in the Flying Carpet in Iraq and Persia. They met a stranded German aviatrix, Elly Beinhorn who joined them, swapped the Flying Carpet’s wheels for floats in south east Asia and met headhunters in Borneo. They flew past the Taj Mahal and took the first aerial photos of Mount Everest and gave aerobatic displays on their way round.
It is a dizzying journey and Halliburton’s breathless style matches it. By the fourth page they have crossed America, sailed across the Atlantic and have flown south from England across France and Spain to Gibraltar. It is apparent that they landed and visited many more places than are described, places like Rangoon barely registering a mention. It was only four years since Lindbergh had become the first person ever to be in New York one day and in Paris on the next; this was a new way of seeing the old world just before it changed. It is hard not to feel Halliburton’s excitement and be swept along by his enthusiasm.
Halliburton is no poet like that other famous flying writer, Antoine St Exupery and his style is not necessarily fashionable. Susan Sontag noted in her 2001 essay Homage to Halliburton (published in her 2002 collection, Where the Stress Falls):
Enthusiasm for travel may not be expressed so giddily today, but I’m sure that the seeking of what is strange or beautiful, or both, remains just as pleasurable and addictive
For Sontag, Halliburton’s books were some of the most important of her life, fusing the idea of being a traveller and a writer as she recalled how his books,
described for me an idea of pure happiness. And of successful volition. You have something in mind. You imagine it. You prepare for it. You voyage toward it. Then you see it. And there is no disappointment; indeed, it may even be more captivating than you imagined.
Like many of his youthful heroes, Halliburton died young. He had embarked on another adventure in March 1939, sailing a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean. He went missing and was pronounced dead in October of that year.
Although not written in a literary style, Tahir Shah points out in his foreword that “great travel writing is all about evoking an atmosphere of adventure” and Halliburton certainly does that with his undiminished enthusiasm for seeking the world’s wonders and conveying his genuine delight at what he is doing.