Black Earth City by Charlotte Hobson
Black Earth City is one of the most unique texts I've had the pleasure of reading, partially because I spent a great deal of my time reading it trying to "peg" it as a certain kind of book. It's billed on the back of the jacket as a memoir/travel, and the endorsements speak of it as either one or the other - Michael Firth says it's "one of the best travel books [he's] ever read," while the New York Times Book Review calls it a "small but rare thing: a memoir that is not egotistical." I must admit that, when I began reading Black Earth City, I wasn't even sure what exactly a "travel" book was supposed to be: was it supposed to inspire you to travel to the place of which it spoke? Was talking at length and in detail about one particular place enough to make a book a "travel" text? Does the main character traveling somewhere create a "travel" book?
Since I couldn't answer these questions in full before reading, I was hoping to be able to do so after I had finished. No such luck. It is, in one sense, a memoir because the author, Charlotte Hobson, is recalling her experiences and relating them to the reader, but in a more popular sense does not qualify as such, because she has none of the "goals" that other people who write memoirs seem to have - she doesn't seek to offer her life or her experiences up as a lesson for the reader and there doesn't seem to be a greater purpose to her story. It simply is what it is. It is a travel book because it speaks of the customs, landscape, atmosphere, weather, and culture of Voronezh during the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but Hobson spends far too much time speaking of her own feelings and memories and the experiences of her fellow students at the hostel in Voronezh (as well as some locals) for it to be just a travel book.
In essence, the story is this. Hobson is of Russian descent but her family, mostly Russian intelligenty (academics and teachers), left the country in the early twentieth century for Britain, where she herself grew up. Her roots and her mother's desire for her to learn Russian come to call during college when, after her mother's death from cancer, Hobson decides to trade in her study of Arabic for her family's native language and to travel abroad to the hostel in chilly and remote Voronezh. A fellow schoolmate decides to accompany her, but their trip is delayed when the Soviet Union begins to fall during the very week they were supposed to leave. Eventually Hobson and Emily, her traveling partner, make it into the country, probably not suspecting what awaits them - a country in turmoil, both socially and politically, at a time when the residents were ready to, as Hobson says, "run wild."
Run wild they did. Hobson spends a great deal of the book detailing the events in the hostel, where a young generation of students is more than willing to take up the flag of the sexual revolution. Free love, drugs, and, of course, Russian vodka flow freely. Hobson forms relationships with several people - mostly men - who flounder about looking for fulfillment, for structure, for a "home" in the land of the homeless. The political structure is uncertain and, as the book goes on, economic deflation wreaks havoc on the people of Voronezh. Everyone seems to be a little crazy, driven to the brink of desperation by the lack of financial and political security and the constant hounding (or suspicion thereof) of the KGB. The decline of Hobson's friends - particularly her boyfriend - as they rely increasingly on their vice of choice (sex, marijuana, vodka) mirrors the decline and depression of the whole society, fighting for freedom after so many years of oppression and structure but longing for the simplicity and safety that structure afforded.
The bulk of the text is engaging and Hobson is successful at making her historical recollection of the Soviet Union's fall interesting, both from an insider's and an outsider's perspective, since she is, in essence, both. I found the end of the book to be rather disconcerting, only because where most of the text was memoir - engaging the reader in the plights of the characters and their eventual outcome - the ending was travel - there was no specific conclusion of which to speak, no resolution of the conflicts. However, that lack of resolution is exactly what makes it nonfiction, memoir, travel - and not fiction. Life, particularly in the Soviet Union at that time, had no neat resolution. Hobson's only resolution was in ending her study there and going home. It was the end of her story, but not the end of the whole story, and she demonstrates this point by not attempting to tie up loose ends or give any more details than are necessary.
Hobson's book, on the whole, is both enjoyable and informative and certainly worth a look for any reader who might find the subject matter interesting.
Black Earth City by Charlotte Hobson