Retracing long worn away steps without going anywhere — of course the advantage of travel literature in many ways is the joy of being able to visit places in the comfort of an armchair, but then there’s also trying to find spots that just simply aren’t around anymore, and that fascination might explain why there seems to have been a rush of books about the Silk Road recently. Maybe it had something to do with the Afghani situation post-9/11 (the book in question I’ll be talking about was released in 2001 and had a followup preface for its American edition talking about just that to a large extent), or maybe it’s the increasing ability for more and more people to go just about anywhere if they so desire.

So as for this Silk Road book in question by Luce Boulnois, Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants on The Silk Road — it’s a bit less than I initially expected, in that I was sorta hoping for more color photos illustrating various areas as the beginning and ending of the book has in spades. But most of the text is just that, text — not a problem at all, but I admit I would have liked to have seen more. It’s a selfish conclusion, though, in that Boulnois isn’t so much focused on that aspect as trying to untangle a history of a concept as much as anything else, not so much the history of the idea of the ‘Silk Road’ so much as the cultural continuum created by a mess of different societies, cultural, political, both and neither, all interested in trading with each other because there was money in it and the end products were much desired.

So the ‘story’ as such starts not at the beginning but just at a point, and generally progresses chronologically but not overtly so. There are steps forward, backward, to the side and around again, anecdotal summations and grand overviews, notations of trade practices and campaigns and individual trips (and perhaps one of the nicest things about it all is the fact that it’s thoroughly non-Eurocentric — the Roman Empire is the fringe rather than the center, and comes in every so often but not as often as all that). And perhaps the key thing is the accounting of what isn’t known as much as what is, the speculation on missing locations, the impossibility to pin down descriptions to exact locations, the acknowledgement that so much has to be imagined, from caravan organization to what type of music many ancient societies played exactly. Boulnois’s style is informative and discursive, just the right side of digressive rambling, moving forward but taking the time to stop and consider, to pose questions rhetorical and not to the reader. I think this approach might be something increasingly French in identification — I’ve seen it conveyed in a number of recent translations of equally recent French work — but it’s a style that’s a joy to read precisely because it takes account of the side ruminations and trackbacks.

A nice, consistently enjoyable read. But I need to finish it soon, there’s other things to read.