Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Devil and the Disappearing Sea

The sad thing is, there really is a bit of Borat in real life in the post-Soviet "stans" (including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, or the proud "Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan"). For proof, take a look at two recent books of reportage on Central Asia which both feature the same central incident, the Aral Sea catastrophe. Rob Ferguson is a Canadian writer from Toronto who released The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: A True Story about the Aral Sea Catastrophe in 2003. Tom Bissell, an American writer from Michigan, published Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia in 2003.

In 1960 the Aral Sea, which sits between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was the world's 4th largest inland body of water, bigger than Lake Huron. By 2002 it had shrunk to 20% of its size and experts say it will completely disappear by 2020. "The quiet Chernobyl" is indeed a tragic environmental event, but both books are pretty hilarious at times in telling the depressing story. When presented with the tortuous details of corruption, bureaucracy and crime, what can one do but laugh?

Ferguson arrived in Uzbekistan in 2000 to work on a project aimed at saving the Aral Sea. His book is more narrowly focused on the tragicomic tale of what befell him and the project. Bissel first visited the area in 1996 as a US Peace Corps worker before returning in 2001 to research the story for a magazine. His book is longer, describing the history of the area as well as his travels around Central Asia with his Uzbek pal, Rustam.

Jonathan Franzen, of The Corrections fame, provided a nice blurb for Bissel:
If you don't think you want to read a book about Uzbekistan, think again. Line by line, Chasing the Sea is as smart and funny and entertaining a travel book as you'll find anywhere; and behind the lines are real passion and a wholly justified outrage over one of the world's great political and environmental catastrophes. Tom Bissell is a terrifically sympathetic young writer. Give yourself a treat and read him.
Good Reports, the Canadian book website, discusses Ferguson's book here.


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