Caucasus blues

<strong>God Lives in St Petersburg

</strong>Tom Bissell <em>Faber & Faber, 224pp, £7.99</em>


Tom Bissell's six short stories are set in a part of the world that most people couldn't confidently place on a map: central Asia. Or, as he calls them, the five "stans": Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

Cut adrift in these unpredictable republics, his western characters begin to behave in equally bizarre ways. Within nine months of his arrival, the clean-cut, idealistic, teetotal Christian protagonist of "The Ambassador's Son" has spent an entire week drunk, been in three fist fights and cheated on his wife no fewer than 27 times. Alongside him Bissell sketches American tourists, scientists on study trips, college graduates eager for "life experience" and freelance journalists immersed in a world for which they are totally unprepared, and which they struggle to understand.

The harsh political climate bites deeply into the characters' lives: Bissell reminds us of disasters such as the Soviet irrigation of the Aral Sea, which turned it into a desert, irrevocably scarring both the landscape and the Uzbek people. But his stories are most memorable for their astute, and frequently disturbing, observations on expat life. Taken from his own experience in the region, they offer a microcosm of central Asia's larger woes.

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