One of my traveling companions on my recent Eurasia passage (see my blog posts Crossing, Crossing 2, Crossing 3, and Crossed) was Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which I read cover to cover, or rather, pixel to pixel (on a Kindle—hey, I was traveling), and as I rarely get to do such an exotic thing as read a whole book these days, here’s a review.
Any book written with this much love needs to be handled carefully. And Frazier’s book was indeed written with love, “Russia love,” a kind of magical, enchanted fascination that appears to have accosted the author in several waves over the sixteen years or so he spent writing. I don’t know if I’ve ever quite experienced what he describes, though I’ve been in Russia many times, studied the language a long time, and written and taught about its literature and cultural history. Still he teaches me plenty of things. And when he notes, during a trip to the northern most reaches of Yakutia in early 2005, that “in Russia writing is so revered that no one [of the people waiting for him to get back in the car] had had the nerve to interrupt me in what might have been an act of literary creation,” I recognize a deeper truth in what appears to be just a subtly descriptive aside, one of many such truthful moments: a sense of responsibility in his treatment of the subject, which I can’t help thinking comes from the respect accorded by those around him for what he’s doing, writing about them and their home.
Travels in Siberia (first published by FSG in 2010, then in paper by Picador in 2011) is capaciously thorough, with its years of research clearly visible. Alongside the enumerated journeys, the author announces his love for his subject more than once, though I found myself wondering whether infatuation might not be a better characterization, even when he calls it love, but I’ll come back to this. He traverses the country several times, in different seasons, by various modes of transportation, through regions from the far east to the Urals, all of which get called, sometimes erroneously, “Siberia” (probably because that’s part of the book’s title), a nineteenth-century appellation that glosses over the distinctive regional differences that have developed since then: Siberia is indeed big, just not as big as this book imagines it. Still, he paints the country and his infatuations with great care, humor, eloquence. The tributes to people he spends time with are often moving.
For a book of its length, there is surprisingly little that might be considered lazy (the telegraphic style that enters inexplicably somewhere in chapter 24—sorry, a problem with reading on a Kindle, you rarely know exactly where you are—departs just as quickly and without apparent motivation; the author just says, mid-sentence, “to drop the telegraphic style” and it’s gone; anyway, it’s an exception), it is frequently funny, and it has a sincere, honest quality that suggests something sincere and honest about the author, his interest in this place, his desire to make it come alive for us. The humor is often self-deprecating—well, of course, he’s in Russia—as when the elderly woman beside him in the back of a jeep complains as they’re clanging down the road toward some out of the way northern locale that she’s being crushed by “the fat American” next to her and his friend Sergei tells him not to feel bad because he’s “a normal size person.” He also loves to play around with numbers, turning them this way and that for effect, if not for greater understanding. Sometimes these turns are delivered with a satisfying kicker at the end, as, for instance, after a discussion of Russia’s declining population, when he stops at the gift shop at the Novosibirsk Museum and finds some refrigerator magnets made of mammoth ivory, which has taken the place of elephant ivory as an article of international trade. The elephants are protected after all, and the mammoths, well, they’re already dead and apparently quite plentiful: “Scientists estimate that the Siberian permafrost holds the remains of 150 million mammoths—or about 8 million more than the 142 million Russians above ground in Russia today.”
(I thought this was a very good line, so I told another of my traveling companions on the train, Fedya, who smiled and said yes, some villages don’t have more than a few people left in them. “But even if there are just two,” he added, “it’s a good bet that one is a ‘businessman’ and will cheat the other out of all his money.” Fedya and his wife both suspected that Frazier was a little too wide-eyed sometimes about their Russia.)
The genre of the book is a problem in Russia, which doesn’t have a separate category for literary travel writing, or literary nonfiction for that matter. This explains one of the many funny scenes in the book, when his guides begin to tell the people they’re meeting along their trip by car across the continent that their American author-companion is writing a book about the Decembrists. He has told them before that he’s writing a book about his travels through Siberia, but they don’t seem to get it. Each time he’s introduced as a Decembrist specialist, he gets taken on another side trip to see some local feature of Decembrist lore. He eventually just gives in.
In fact, I would count his treatment of the Decembrists among the work’s particular triumphs, as he manages to bring their various successes, failures, infatuations, and long work to life (despite not writing a book about them). His extended discussion of the work of George Kennan on prisons and prison culture, and the many other American travelers to Siberia opens up new vistas even to people (like me) who might think they already know. The treatment of the historical importance of the sable, with more numbers ingeniously turned, is equally impressive, and when he sees one (SEES ONE) hopping along in the tundra beside their all-terrain vehicle, the moment conveyed is surprising and magical. Then there are tidbits throughout, as for instance the story of the Japanese major, Fukushima Yasumasa, who traveled on horseback from Poland to Vladivostok, ostensibly just on a bet, though that seems unlikely given the significant opportunities for reconnaissance the trip afforded. (I have since found a Polish article on the subject, which suggests that his route allowed him to make contact with Polish revolutionaries at either end of the Russian Empire, and that the Japanese of the late nineteenth century saw their situation as potentially akin to that of Poland, with a growing imperial Russia at its border, ready to swallow them up).
He does not mention Colin Thubron’s 2000 book In Siberia, which I would have thought was the nearest neighbor to this one. In fact, however, the two books have very little in common beyond the fact that they are both English-language works of literary travel writing with the word “Siberia” in the title. I have used Thubron’s book in class but won’t ever again, while Frazier’s I would use, or some of it at least, especially those parts that find traces of the Decembrists, the eloquent section on Magadan and the lager’ (forced labor camp) whose remnants he discovers nearby, or the historical sections on travels in Siberia. The difference between the two books is largely one of tone. Thubron’s narrator is often tired, the voice experienced, almost jaded, while Frazier manages to maintain an exploratory, naïve (in a positive sense) interest throughout, even when he’s exhausted and irritated and filthy. And when he’s just too exhausted or filthy, or long-winded officialdom exerts its inevitable pressure, he recovers quickly, which makes me suspect that genuine curiosity is his natural state. The voice is endearing, trustworthy, and exuberant.
It’s not an academic book, and this means that he sometimes misses things he might have found interesting and useful for his work, for instance Katerina Clark’s distinction between elemental spontaneity and conscious control in Russian cultural history, or the many fine insights about pre-Revolutionary revolutionary Russian culture contained in James Billington’s magisterial The Icon and the Axe. I was surprised to find no literary or historical scholars mentioned in the acknowledgments. But this just made me sad about the cultural divisions in the current publishing environment, where scholarly books tend to be written by scholars with a scholarly apparatus and scholarly friends, and literary books tend to be written by litterateurs with literary friends.
But—and this is the biggest question the book left me with, and I realize my asking it won’t likely be well taken by the author, his publisher, and the majority of his readers, but I’m going to write it down anyway—I could not help but find myself asking if perhaps a major reason he was able to maintain that positive, slightly wide-eyed sense of wonder and discovery in his many encounters with Russia through all the years he found himself drawn to it in that particular “loving” way he describes with such insistence, I wondered, in short, if that wasn’t because he never learned the language beyond a fairly elementary level. It’s hard to know something like this, especially as he’s the one who explains his limited language proficiency and his many attempts to raise it, and there may be some added self-deprecation in this portrait as well, I don't know. But the early stages of language learning—I’ve seen it many times in my students and felt it more than once myself—are often characterized by a kind of freshness and energetic attraction that can feel a lot like falling in love.
I’m remembering a song by Susan Werner that enumerates all the things she can be for her partner, except for new.
I can be your girl
Through the best and worst time
But I can't be the girl you notice
For the first time
There's so much I can do
But I can't be new
(here are the lyrics for the whole song).
By not learning the language, or not learning it well enough to function on his own by using it, I wonder if he doesn’t maintain, for many years and through many different encounters with the place and its people, that initial stage of language learning, cultural flirtation, infatuation, a state that Vassilis Alexakis describes in his Foreign Words: “I’m starting to think that learning a language is like taking a dip in the fountain of youth.” Everything is new because the words are fresh, you haven’t used them before, you don’t know enough of them to say anything beyond the most basic names of items and sensations, and what they conceal is always just beyond your grasp, exciting and filled with mysterious, beautiful potential. Imagine what a fine book you could create by maintaining that state of being over a long period of time and using it to fuel your curiosity and your writing. You’re falling in love, again and again and again.
Russell Scott Valentino is Editor-in-chief of the Iowa Review and founder and director of Autumn Hill Books. His translations include Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada, Predrag Matvejevic’s The Other Venice: Secrets of the City, and Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric. He is also the author of two scholarly monographs, numerous essays and articles, and various short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry translations from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. He teaches in the University of Iowa’s Translation Workshop.
Travels in Siberia
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
$30 hardcover, ISBN: 0374278725