June 6, 2004: Headlines: COS - Kyrgyzstan: Writing - Kyrgyzstan: New York Times: Robert Rosenberg, author of "This is not civilization," served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kyrgyzstan: Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan : The Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan: June 6, 2004: Headlines: COS - Kyrgyzstan: Writing - Kyrgyzstan: New York Times: Robert Rosenberg, author of "This is not civilization," served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan

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Robert Rosenberg, author of "This is not civilization," served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan

Robert Rosenberg, author of This is not civilization, served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan

Robert Rosenberg, author of "This is not civilization," served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan

'This Is Not Civilization': We'll Always Have Kyzyl Adyr-Kirovka

Published: June 6, 2004

As anti-Americanism reaches dizzying new heights, an undeniable achievement for a president who campaigned on being ''a uniter, not a divider,'' it seems like a ripe time for a novel about young Americans abroad in the world -- in this case, really abroad.

One of the main characters in Robert Rosenberg's likable first novel is Jeff Hartig, a humanitarian-worker and drifter who fetches up in a village named (if I'm spelling it right) Kyzyl Adyr-Kirovka, in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. There he falls in with Anarbek Tashtanaliev, manager of a struggling cheese factory, and his beautiful daughter Nazira. Rounding out an improbable foursome is Adam Dale, a young Apache whom Jeff met at his last posting on a particularly grim reservation in Arizona. This may well be the only novel you will ever read that shifts between Kyrgyzstan and Red Cliff, Ariz. It is certainly unlikely you will ever encounter one with more k's and z's in it, or more umlauts (the action eventually moves to Istanbul).


The details are bracing and exact. The author served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan and worked on an Apache reservation. At times his descriptions are so well rendered that one yearns to be somewhere else, say Terre Haute or Albany. Quite possibly he felt this way himself, since he arrived in Istanbul in 1999 for a teaching job five days before an earthquake hit that killed tens of thousands of people. His description of the aftermath of this calamity is journalistic, humane and heart-wrenching.

Rosenberg makes the reader care for his characters, though I must confess I was somewhat relieved when it was over. One can only eat so many sheep eyeballs, squat in so many maggot-ridden outhouses, drink so much fermented mare's milk. Call me squeamish.

But perhaps the joke's on me, for ''This Is Not Civilization'' strives to make the point -- and perhaps makes it convincingly -- that it is America, ''massive wealthy modern America,'' that may be lacking in the civilization department. The Americans here are alienated and rootless and hate their fathers, whereas the bond between Nazira and Anarbek is earthy and wholesome -- ''My Big Fat Kyrgyz Wedding,'' if you will. Actually, in (let's just call it) K-stan, the courtship ritual is to abduct your future wife, rape her well and truly and then settle down among the sheep.

However, the Americans may be less rootless and alienated than one thought. This is fundamentally a novel about the inexorable power that land -- as in ''motherland,'' or as we now seem to be calling it here, ''homeland'' -- exerts, fight against it though we may.

Arriving in Istanbul after fleeing his horrible father and the general god-awfulness of the reservation, Adam, though used to squalor, nonetheless finds it odd that Turkish pipes won't accept toilet paper without exploding. Jeff is defensive: ''No, I love it. I love this shoddiness. America's so -- easy. Everything works.'' Well, all right, except for the C.I.A. and F.B.I. But this was written before the 9/11 hearings.

There are echoes, in Jeff Hartig, of the Quiet American, Alden Pyle. Jeff may be likable and well-intentioned, a classic ''innocent'' in the not-altogether-innocent American sense, but he tends to leave the situation more complicated than he found it. He also remains oblivious of the fact, ultimately depriving him of any redemption, unlike Adam. In the end, Jeff shuffles off in the general direction of West Africa, where, he tells us, he has always yearned to work. That he will leave Guinea-Bissau or Monrovia better off for his ministrations is unlikely.

Nazira puts her finger on the source of Jeff's anomie when she is reunited with him in Istanbul after 10 years and finds him no longer the bright, eager young man she knew back in Kyzyl Adyr-Kirovka. He shrugs -- his principal gesture at this point in life -- and tells her that maybe it's time for him ''to move on again, see more of the world.'' The impulse, going back to Huck Finn and Ishmael, is very American, but neither Huck nor Ishmael had any illusions about trying to improve the place.

''I do not understand you, Jeff,'' she says. ''The world is everywhere! You have seen too much of it, I think.'' Kyzyl Adyr-Kirovka, or however the hell you spell it, never looked so good.

Christopher Buckley's new novel, ''Florence of Arabia,'' a Middle East comedy, will be published this fall.

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Story Source: New York Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kyrgyzstan; Writing - Kyrgyzstan



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