Belarius's Reviews > Tuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman's Last Journey

Tuva or Bust! by Ralph Leighton
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Jan 26, 2008

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bookshelves: nonfiction-finished, reviewed
Recommended for: Friends Of Tuva

Ralph Leighton's casually epic description of a decade of obsession with the tiny country of Tannu Tuva in the 1970s and 1980s (now a part of the Russian Federation, and a part of the USSR before that) describes itself as "Richard Feynman's Last Journey." It might perhaps be better described as "The author's obsession, shared in part with Richard Feynman who was a great man, and to whom it provided some comfort in that man's final years."

In practice, I was at once charmed and disappointed in the book itself. On the one hand, I had hoped for more Feynman, the chief reason (it seemed to me) to read the book in the first place. On the other hand, Leighton's casually geeky and relaxedly obsessive storytelling is folksy and engaging.

The meat of the book, in practice, is its observations about the nature of US-USSR relations during the tail end of the Cold War. The modern reader will be struck by how closed that world seems, and how remote the tiny nation of Tannu Tuva appears to be to a Westerner trying to catch a glimpse of it from afar. The book's accounts of lost mail, of tedious archival research, of Russian bureaucracy, and of the habits of waiters in Communist restaurants paint a picture of How It Was through the lens of an enthusiastic hobbyist and his comrades-in-arms.

It's hard not to like the book, especially since Leighton is writing it so earnestly on Feynman's behalf. Leighton, clearly a good friend of Feynman's, is nevertheless stuck at arm's length, never really able to penetrate the aura of Feynman's greatness and forever praising him as part of his (well-deserved) cult of personality. As Feynman's health deteriorates through the book, Leighton's prose becomes more needful. The book is an homage to Feynman and to what comfort Feynman drew from a decade of Tuva-seeking. "I couldn't save him," Leighton seems to say, "but I eased his passing."

This sentimentalism, though benevolent and understandable, does start to wear on the reader by the end. As Leighton celebrates every minuscule step toward Tuva, the reader can't help but feel that beneath the celebration is a seed of bitter frustration. Leighton tries too hard, in the end, to think positive and comes across as a little forced.

Despite these shortcomings, the book remains light and entertaining. Anyone with an interest in Feynman, in geography, in the comedic side of the Cold War, or in Asian nomad culture should give this book a whirl. For other readers, the book is still recommended, but not with any sense of urgency or force. Tuva, at the geometric center of Asia, isn't going anywhere. For more information from Ralph's enthusiastic Friends of Tuva, visit their website.
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