I set myself bizarre reading challenges for work purposes. Why try to read books set in the ‘stans? This is a collection I got out of the library (I obtain a small proportion of my reading matter from the Central Library, I still buy a lot of books, I get books from work, and I’ve just signed up to the Real Readers programme (hi Simon, Matthew)).
Written by an American man who spent some time in Uzbekistan, God Lives in St Petersburg is a collection of literary snapshots in the various ‘stans of Central Asia. It opens with ‘Death Defier’, which follows a couple of journalists and their local guide / translator in Afghanistan, and it was a bit of a punch in the face. I mean that in a good way — Bissell gets straight to the heart of the matter. All the stories felt authentic, especially the ones that involved Christian missionaries in one way or another. There was something quite cold and matter-of-fact about them all, in fact, in that they didn’t romanticise the people, the landscape, or the circumstances. It was only reading the last story, ‘Animals in Our Lives’, that I felt some emotion creeping in, where it dealt with what happens after a well-meaning Westerner leaves Central Asia for home.
One of my favourite stories was ‘The Ambassador’s Son’ — if you read it and have also read my site during ‘the Xiamen years’ you’ll understand why. All in all, I found God Lives in St Petersburg totally absorbing. Nothing can ever beat Legend of a Suicide for the emotional whipping its stories give you, but this collection by Tom Bissell isn’t far behind.