By Michael Cotter
Journalists Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac have produced an interesting, if long, account of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ European competition for control of the Asian heartland. Once described as a “tournament of shadows,” that turmoil-plagued region of the world continues to gain the world’s attention with headlines concerning religious fundamentalism, cultural repression, and oil.
The saga of Western penetration into Central Asia over the past two centuries cannot be captured adequately in a single volume. A number of scholars have tackled the complicated relationship between Russia and Great Britain in their nineteenth century struggle for secure borders and domination of Central Asia. Although the title and breadth of coverage might lead the reader to expect a more scholarly work, this book is instead written more along the lines of Peter Hopkirk’s multiple volume popular history. In their preface, the authors explain that they intend to focus on the interesting characters who gave spirit and meaning to the contest. In that regard, Meyer and Brysac have succeeded admirably. Their rendering of the tales of the explorers, adventurers, spies, and archaeologists who ventured deep into the Eurasian heartland during this period makes intriguing reading.
But in also attempting to link these tales of “daring do” to the larger picture, the authors complicate their task by trying to include everything from the earliest British East India company ventures into Afghanistan and Kashmir to mid-twentieth century efforts to penetrate Tibet. The unfortunate result is a myriad of loose ends, odd detours, and a general lack of cohesion. The chapter entitled “Swastikas to Lhasa,” for example, is more about World War II and the link between the Nazi regime and the two explorers, Sven Hedin and Ernst Schaffer, than about their activities or the Nazis’ interest in Central Asia. The book’s saving grace is that Meyer and Brysac know how to spot and tell a good tale, so some of the odd detours make the best reading. For instance, their account in chapter nineteen of the relationship between FDR’s vice-president and future Progressive presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, and the Russian Theosophist and explorer, Nicholas Roerich, is truly entertaining.
A good bibliography is critical in a book designed to introduce newcomers to such a sweeping subject. Too often, however, it is simply a dry list of pertinent works, demonstrating the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of the subject but almost impenetrable for the average reader. Fortunately, the bibliography in this volume is presented in an innovative way that will be appreciated by all but the real experts. Chapter notes at the end of the book (52 pages of them!) include a discussion of the principal works on the subjects discussed therein, including recommendations as to which are best for a particular purpose. Most readers will benefit from their selections. The authors’ treatment of footnotes is another tip-off that the book is aimed at non-academics. There are no footnotes in the body of the book, and the chapter notes simply cite specific sources for quotations by page.
With Tournament of Shadows’ heavy emphasis on describing the routes taken by the many expeditions into Central Asia, the inclusion of good maps showing those routes and the towns mentioned in the text would have been very useful. Unfortunately, the maps included in the book leave much to be desired. And, as is the case with so many books including this one, the maps cover two pages, leaving critical sites inevitably obscured by the binding.
Overall, this work is a creditable effort to expand popular interest in and knowledge of this relatively unkown part of the world, and it will amply reward the patient reader. At the same time, it does not replace Peter Hopkirk’s books (four of which cover much of the same historical territory) as the standard for the genre.