August 9, 2011
From LibraryThing early reviewers program:
Tea of Ulaanbaatar opens on a simple thought, a fulfilled desire that seems rather ordinary: the main character, Warren, finally remembers a poem that had alluded him for months. The narrator observes it’s ironic that Warren has remembered at precisely that moment, but we don’t really appreciate just what the narrator has revealed at the start of this novel until we have traveled its pages. What a journey that turns out to be.
Tea of Ulaanbaatar is set in the capital city of late 20th century Mongolia and features Peace Corps volunteers posted there. A Peace Corps mission to a strange place may suggest an epic saga of heroic efforts and commonplace miracles to cheer. That the mission takes place deep within Central Asia, in a land that anthropologists tell us peopled continents (Asia, Americas, Europe) and where historians tell us the world’s first empire originated, may suggest soaring reveries on the spacious and harsh natural beauty of Mongolia and its people. There is a chance it may be a 21st century pastoral novel. But I suppose if life were that simple, adults would remain satisfied with children’s picture-books and picturesque travel guides. For even though Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia provides the occasion and the setting for the novel, the physical place is not the focal point of this hellish ride. Rather, the extreme conditions and culture shocks are existential, psychological, and interior.
The writer has given us a sharp narrator to guide us through the hell Warren and his companions experience. On the surface, there are plenty of drugs and drink, inexplicable violence, and blunt descriptions of sex acts and sexual attitudes in this novel, all of which escalate as the narrator unfolds his story. The narrator remains with Warren throughout the novel, and in certain passages, the narrator and Warren seem to morph together. But for the most part the narrator seems like an additional character in the novel–and is perhaps the wisest and most likable character in this novel. The narrator is clear and brutal about what he reveals and when, and it seems he redeems Warren only because he likes him. The narrator is a keen observer of the other characters, sympathetic to some (a couple of whom seem undeserving of sympathy) and quite cruel with others–just as we all-too-human humans are. The narrator comes to the novel knowledgable beyond what he shares with us: he is the character whose survival is most assured in this precarious place.
Another reviewer of this novel has noted its noir style, and I agree with that impression. The writer has skillfully woven noir elements throughout with a craft that reminded me of Nathanael West’s devastating Miss Lonelyhearts. As the narrator tells it, there are no heroes in Ulaanbaatar–this ruined (and ruinous) city strewn with grimy bars, broken people and animals, and crumbling buildings, which from a different perspective could convey a nostalgic charm. There are only anti-heroes in Ulaanbaatar.
Warren and the others exist in a state of utter disillusionment, or complete despair, where hardly anyone has any empathy for the suffering of others. That said, at times Warren seems troubled by his own lack of empathy, and in classic noir fashion, Warren clings to a hope that an earlier romantic love may save him, no matter how slim those chances seem (it maybe this that endears Warren to the narrator). As it frequently does, disillusionment verges into black comedy–in particular during the scenes involving the whacked-out supervisor of the Peace Corps volunteers. Yeah, we laugh so we won’t cry. Warren embarks on a never-ending quest for spiritual wholeness through experiences that must be jacked-up because nothing really overcomes his dread. Neither the mystical tea of the title, nor sex, criminal transgressions, violence to self and others, or sublime hallucinations on the steppes of Mongolia can overcome such malaise.
Claustrophobia permeates the novel and engulfs everyone, including the narrator and the reader. Although Warren moves around within the city and beyond, and the novel has exacting description of action, there is an overall sense of confinement, of being trapped, throughout the novel. In the second scene of the novel, Warren and the other Peace Corps volunteers are locked in the airplane that brought them to Mongolia and they believe they will suffocate. Two women even hit the aisle floor, they feel so trapped. This claustrophobia the Americans feel right after arrival will never leave them no matter where they go or what they do in Ulaanbaatar, and it never leaves the narrator, focused as he is on Warren’s thoughts, actions, and desires.
The overall claustrophobic effect reminded me very much of the claustrophobic effect I have always felt structured Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. For it’s as if the narrator of Tea of Ulaanbaatar has landed in a maze of trench warfare. And where the narrator lands, so too does the reader. It’s an astonishing effect considering the expansiveness and openness one might imagine when one encounters a novel about a Peace Corps mission abroad. I suppose we would rather like to imagine the vastness of the world opening before young, idealistic individuals on well-meaning missions to stricken places and desperate people. The novelist has reminded us that life is never that simple.