Saturday, April 28, 2007

Silk Road to Ruin Completes Buzkashi-Deficient Book Collection

A primer into the woefully understood and understudied topic of contemporary Central Asia requires a reading of the following:
  • Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game
  • Lonely Planet Central Asia
  • Colin Thubron's Lost Heart of Asia
Now, Ted Rall's Silk Road to Ruin completes this small library. When I ordered it, I had no idea that it was part travelogue narrative, part graphic novel. My only prior experience with graphic novels was Art Spiegelman's Maus. Rall uses the graphic novel/comic strip format to recount his various treks through Central Asia. A State Department pro-democracy tour to Turkmenistan. A bus journey on the Karakoram Highway. His infamous Stan Trek 2000. Through the rudimentary, two-dimensional illustrations and simple yet realistic dialogue, Rall conveys in a few dozen cells what cannot be covered in entire chapters. The recounts are laugh-out-loud funny, raunchy, insightful, sad, and scary.

The rest of the book contains a fairly thorough assessment of present day Central Asia. Politics; human rights abuses; relations with the U.S., Russia, and China; and the importance of natural gas and oil dominate the narrative. However, snippets of history, cuisine, and sports (see the chapter re the game of buzkashi) are carefully laid out throughout the book.

About half the pages in the book have some sort of illustration, be they photographs, maps, graphic novellas, or four-cell comic strips. Rall's style is akin to Matt Groening's Life in Hell. They make the reading fun and fast. I went through the 300 page book during a work week. I wish I can say the same for Owen Lattimore's The Desert Road to Turkestan and its companion, High Tartary, which I placed on hold midway through to read Silk Road to Ruin.

My only complaints have to do with the editing process. There are a few glaring typographical errors. Errors akin to confusing "there" with "their" are hard to ignore. Though it was not a big deal, it did take a little bit away from the experience. I also had a problem with the layout. The font was small and there was literally no room for margins. I'm sure the publishers could have spared the money and added a few more pieces of paper to the book.

All in all, this book was a great effort in making the topic of Central Asia real and un-academic. Both Central Asia aficionados and neophytes alike will love the book. I can't wait to read Rall's To Afghanistan and Back.


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