Customer Reviews: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game And the Race for Empire in Central Asia
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VINE VOICEon February 12, 2001
Having read Peter Hopkirk's "The Great Game", I was intrigued by the subject of the imperial machinations between Britain and Russia in Central Asia in the 19th century. The intrigues and maneuvers and subterfuge between the two opponents indeed offer some interesting insights into the development of the 20th century's Cold War and into the conduct of colonial powers and their proxy wars. Much of this, however, has faded from the public's historical consciousness.
Famous in their time, the explorers and military leaders of that place and time have now slipped into footnotes and obscure scholarly treatises. And of course, those figures who by necessity had to operate far more clandestinely on their secret missions are now almost wholly forgotten. Only the high points remain barely remembered, events like the Afghan Wars.
"Tournament of Shadows" is a good survey of the confrontations between Russia and Britain in India, Tibet, and Afghanistan. The book, like the figures on whom it reports, covers a lot of ground, dealing with the earliest Western penetrations into Central Asia and ending with events in post-WWII Tibet. A huge cast of characters is introduced, including men and women from England, Czarist and Soviet Russia, India, the U.S., and Germany. A great many significant developments are discussed, along with amusing and interesting side treks into historical minutiae.
The book's breezy, even gossipy, style is both its strength and weakness. Readers who don't want to delve too deeply into any one aspect of this fascinating period won't get bogged down by extended analyses. And certainly, the layperson will find out quite a few tidbits about the personal and private lives of quite a few people.
However, a narrower concentration would have helped focus the book and eliminate some confusion. So many governors and sahibs and explorers and diplomats and generals race on and off the page that it becomes hard to separate Bell from Bailey or remember who was imprisoned in Khokand and who got murdered in Kabul. It's certainly laudable to resurrect some faded luminaries and bring them back into the limelight, but little seems to be accomplished by trying to cram in every tangential figure and giving them only one or two paragraphs.
Still, it's a good (if overly lengthy) general introduction to the field, although with rather more time spent on Tibet than it seems to me was merited. Also, I would've preferred that sources be footnoted rather than directly referenced in the text, since the numerous citations to recent works and new archival discoveries border on authorial boasting. ("Look at how much homework we did!") But that's just a quibble.
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VINE VOICEon March 17, 2000
I'm a big fan of Peter Hopkirk's works on the Great Game, so buying this book was a no-brainer! It covers a lot of the same ground as Hopkirk did, but does go into some ancillary episodes, and comes up to date more than his. I agree with one of the other reviewers that better, and better-anotated, maps would have helped readers who became confused with exactly where some of the places mentioned are located, but I didn't let it detract from the exjoyment I received from this book. It's an excellent addition to the books on the great Game, and I welcome it.
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on January 26, 2000
The nineteenth-century experience of the Westerner in Asia, the perspective of the humblest individual, was never better depicted than by Rudyard Kipling, novelist and poet of empire. In the case of Afghanistan, his advice to "The Young British Soldier" was short and stark:
"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."
If Kipling had been better studied in Moscow, the Soviet Union might still be around today. Its ten year losing war in Afghanistan was a large contributor to its demise.
In 1839, in an earlier, and similarly ill-considered intervention, and with an eye on what they thought were Czarist Russian designs in the region, the British marched an army of over 20,000 from India, over unmapped mountain passes, into Afghanistan. Three years later, a single survivor returned to Jalalabad, on a limping horse, to tell the tale. Britain learned the lesson, and never again sought direct conquest of the country. Thenceforth, her power in the region would be projected by more indirect means.
With this, Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac set the stage for their masterful account, of Great Power rivalry - Victorian statesmen termed it "The Great Game" -- for political dominance of inner Asia, the land along the ancient Silk Route. Britain, its erstwhile rival, Czarist Russia, and (later, and to a lesser extent) Germany and the United States, all "played it through" as the authors note, using the language of the greatest of British (and Indian and Pakistani) games, cricket.
Much of the Game revolved around maps. We are reminded - usefully, in this day of mail-order hand-held GPS devices, available to every backpacker - that maps are power, state secrets, and that until very recently, parts of Tibet were still "white", unmapped. (The next space shuttle mission is reported to involve high resolution radar mapping of 80 percent of the earth. The results will, in part, be classified, to prevent their use by "hostile" powers. The global Great Game continues.)
In the end, the Great Game produced "scores but no prizes". Afghanistan from the first defied British and Russians alike; the British Raj itself faded like the Mughals it had supplanted. The Soviet Union, the heir to the empire of the Czars, is gone, and central Asia, and former Soviet territories once again divided into autonomous or semi-autonomous states. Tibet, the least penetrable area of all, was absorbed, in 1950, ironically, by the player held in lowest esteem by the others, a resurgent China.
"Tournament of Shadows" is not a socioeconomic or geopolitical study on the Fernand Braudel model, but a succession of narratives of the adventures (and misadventures) of a colorful series of soldiers, geographers, scientists, explorers, out and out charlatans, and others, from whom the West gained its first definitive experience of the region. The first of these is the unlikely William Moorcraft, a middle-aged down and out Lancashire horse doctor who parlayed a humdrum posting at Calcutta into an expedition, in 1820, to Bokhara, in Turkestan, a thousand miles away. The last is a curious duo, the Russian grandson of Leo Tolstoy and an American, Brooke Dolan, sent by the OSS (precursor of the CIA) on a mission to the Dalai Lama in wartime Tibet.
They were an intrepid lot: tough outdoorsmen, resourceful and sturdily anti-authority. All were, in their own way, dreamers. Most were amateur linguists and not a few published scholarly accounts of their travels and exploits. Time and again the authors note wistfully that one or the other of them is unjustly forgotten today. By this wonderfully entertaining account, Meyer and Brysac have more than made up for such neglect.
Jonathan Scoll
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on June 7, 2000
As someone who knew little of the history of Central Asia and the Great Game, I found this book to be a very enjoyable introduction to the topic. The authors basically devote each chapter to a prominent event or person of the time, and then use that topic to fill in a very general history of the era. The writing style is light and anecdotal. While sometimes the sheer number of characters floating in and out of the picture can be overwhelming, I did not find the book to be bogged down in minutia, as one reviewer mentioned. I agree with many of the reviewers that the maps are insufficient to help a reader trace the course of the narrative. I also did not notice the bias against Sven Hedin and others that one reviewer mentioned. Hedin received a full chapter on his exploits, about the same as most of the main characters in the book. If you approach this book as a series of 20 or so short, light biographies on some major players of the era, and as an introduction not a deifinitive account, you should be very well pleased.
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on April 2, 2002
In the nineteenth century Central Asia was as much a Terra Incognita as inner Africa, and early this century was still largely unexplored by Europeans. This book is a sweeping coverage of European exploration of Central Asia as part of the great game.
Interestingly, the authors seek to tell their story through a series of vignettes, built around the colourful characters who conducted the daring expeditions into the unknowns of the Tarim Basin or the high plateau of Tibet. This breathes life into the history, but somewhat at the expense of historical analysis. Insufficient space is devoted to explaining the wider significance of these expeditions.
What really lets the reader down is the irritating writing style which sees inexplicable changes of tense between one paragraph and another, or changes from the third person to the first person plural.
Add to that somewhat poor proofing (the battle of Waterloo did not occur in 1814) and one begins to lose confidence in the accuracy of other material presented.
This is a shame. The book is much needed, and the authors have done an immense amount of research, but the book fails to hang together as I had hoped.
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on December 27, 1999
Fans of the Ripping Good Yarns school of historical writing (as in James/Jan Morris) will find this a pleasurable way to spend a few evenings. It goes very quickly, despite its heft.
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on March 26, 2005
Tournament of Shadows, by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, mostly examines the conflict between England and Russia over political and economic dominance in Central Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Towards the end of the book the emerging role of the USA in this region is also examined, but in less detail. This is a shame since today the American presence in the Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, all formerly components of the Soviet Union, has greatly increased and the impact of this expansion on Russian-American relations in the 21st century remains unclear.
In any case, the authors present the original Great Game through the eyes of a select set of foreign soldiers, geographers, explorers and spies whose actions, often illegal and always dangerous, defined the geographical and political boundaries of nineteenth century Central Asia. In some ways this is an appealing perspective. For example, we are provided with many examples of how individual initiative and action 'on the ground' can shape history in ways just as important as decisions made by political leaders in London and Moscow. Also, one gets the impression that many heroic and long forgotten individuals are finally getting some deserved recognition for their actions. On the other hand, by focusing largely on the biography of these obscure individuals, many of whom seem to have been driven simply by the desire to 'be the first' to enter Lhasa, for example, or who were simply following orders from above, it is difficult to get a true sense of what each country considered its broad strategic interests in the region. The authors also provide little background of the region's history before 1800, again making it difficult to put the decisions and actions of the individuals into any larger historical perspective. But as a collection of interesting and exciting biographical sketches this book succeeds well enough.
Perhaps because of the largely biographical nature of the book the authors draw few explicit lessons, either geopolitic or personal from the English and Russian actions in Central Asia. However, the tragic and often gruesome fate of many of individuals described in this book and the ultimate destruction of both the English and Soviet Russian empires through actions in Central Asia should give pause today to anyone who considers foreign intervention as the best means to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet and the new Central Asian republics.
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on September 2, 2001
This is a book for someone who wants to know at least as much about the way history happens as s/he does about the specific things that happened. The authors give us the historical picture by telling us the stories of a relatively small number of characters, and they tell those stories very well indeed. Most of this is told through Western eyes depsite an occasional effort to bring in quotes from Asian sources. In the process, they do an outstanding job of placing the vignettes of individuals and specific events into the broader historical, cultural and geographic context. In that respect, the book us is an extended and updated retelling of Jan Morris' three classic books on Britain and the Victorian era, but focused specifically on central and south Asia. One caveat: It helps to know something of the history of central and south Asia in the last two or three centuries, because there are large gaps in the timeline and the action jumps from place to place. And even if you know something about Asian geography you'll be frustrated by the woefully insufficent maps. But that's a minor annoynace -- just get out your atlas and follow the action. The comparison with Jan Morris is apt because the writing is so polished, the tale so is entertaining and the authors are so good at helping us understand recent history by linking it back to the sweep of events across the 19th and 20th centuries.
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on October 10, 2003
This is a most entertaining telling of the history of Central Asia, and what was called "the great game". The game was simply defined as keeping Russia out and Britain in control of the region. It is fascinating to learn the history of Afghanistan and the massive British defeat, and later the history of Tibet. Each chapter is like a short history lesson, or short story, illustrating via a principle player the actual events that lead us to the present day. The books structure reminds me of Allan Moorhead's two books on the Nile (The While Nile, The Blue Nile). Recommended to anyone who wants both a good overview of the Central Asian history of European empire that also in part reads like an adventure book.
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VINE VOICEon September 23, 2001
Brysac and Meyer wrote a wonderful introduction to the "Great Game." Presented here, in readable prose, through the eyes of the men who participated, is the ultimately futile effort of the great powers to gain control of central Asia. The authors focus, not simply on the places, dates, and statistics, but on the motivations and personalities of the central characters.
While I read this book several months ago, recently I found myself rereading it. It serves as a wonderful reminder of the trials, difficulties, and cost in blood and treasure to those who have sought to hold sway over central Asia. While many people have at least a passing familiarity with Russia's failure to conquer Afghanistan in the 20th Century, few understand the rivers of Russian and British blood that were spilled in previous adventures in past centuries.
More than such military warnings, the authors also do an excellent job teaching the reader about the conflicting cultures of east and west. The disasters that result from misunderstandings of language and custom are presented in a riveting fashion. While the text is almost entirely about the 19th century, many familiar forces are at work. Multinational corporations, jingoistic nationalists, spies, glory-seeking officers, popular national pride, all play a part in this unfolding story.
I would offer one caveat in my praise of this work. The text lacks maps, which would have greatly increased my enjoymnet. In the end, I just read it with an atlas always in reach. It made it easier and more enjoyable. Despite this strange flaw, I highly recommend this work. If you are interested in this topic, I would suggest Bernard Lewis's work on international power politics in the Middle East as well.
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