January 2011

Janet Potter

nonfiction

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

At some point in the middle of his life, Ian Frazier fell in love with Russia. Itís an odd muse, he admits. To call it fickle would be generous. The country is a mess, the people are commonly hostile, and the language is a mind game. ďThe dread Russia-love,Ē says Frazier, is an almost inexplicable force. Those in its power can almost never explain why, and yet it continues apace.

Frazier, in the throes of his new passion, started taking Russian lessons and planning trips to the country. Particularly, his interest was piqued by Siberia. Siberia accounts for about 75% of Russia, the largest country in the world, and yet is frequently ignored, perhaps would be forgotten entirely if it werenít such a handy concept in jokes and insults.

Of course we all ignore it. Itís huge, impassable, cold, known for prisons, and everybody there speaks Russian. ďA book about Siberia,Ē though, has been a constant goal for Frazier for years. He wanted to cross it, meet its inhabitants, smell its forest air, find out what weíve all been ignoring.

So he did, and how! His new book, Travels in Siberia, describes several trips Frazier took to the region, including crossing Siberia west to east in the summer, and crossing it a few years later east to west in the winter. He peppers his accounts of these trips with his research of Siberian history and geography, and reads all the Siberian travelogues he can find (an easy task, for obvious reasons). In one of the earliest, the priest Avvakum describes his familyís journey into exile.

"My poor old woman tramped along, tramped along, and at last she fell, and another weary soul stumbled over her, and he fell too, and they both screamed, and were not ale to get up... And I came up, and she, poor soul, began to complain to me, saying, 'How long, archpriest, are these sufferings to last?' And I said, 'Markovna! till our death.' And she, with a sigh, answered, 'So be it, Petrovich; let us be getting on our way."

Siberia! Let the adventure begin!

--

Ian Frazierís 500-page reflection on Siberia is wonderfully engaging. Take a moment to realize how unlikely that sentence sounds. He accomplishes this in two ways. The first is that he is genuinely excited about getting to know Siberia. There is a truly enchanting passage during the winter road trip when, in the midst of an interminable drive on a bad road, a Russian sable starts running alongside the vehicle. Frazier had been hoping to spot one of these rare, beautiful, and emblematic animals, and when he does he starts jumping up and down in his seat and shouting. His fellow passengers, all Russians who routinely find Siberian drives a lot less lyrical than Frazier does, watch him with enormous, generous grins on their faces.

A dose of childlike wonder never hurt any book, but itís not Frazierís modus operandi. In fact, the second reason his book succeeds so grandly is his ability to shift easily among all the conventional conceits of travel writing, each showing off another of his writerly gifts.

Here, he pulls off the wry, pithy observation of an outsider:

"Bugs are just part of the Siberian situation, as inescapable as distance and monotony."

Here, a spot-on character portrait of his native companion, tour guide, and nemesis, Sergei:

"By this time my anger was fading and I was recalling his good qualities -- his all-around competence, his occasional sweetness, his love of adventure, his toughness."

Here, a funny, self-deprecating portrait of himself as a bumbling American:

"...I was still in the Belovs' vestibule trying to pull on my extreme-cold Frankenstein boots. I just could not get them on. I fell over onto the cement floor in the attempt, but kept on pulling. Sveta came out while I was doing that, and she looked down at me in surprise. I guess that's not how Russians put their boots on."

Frazier often plays the fool in his account, and not exclusively in the manner of language barriers and dietary mix-ups. He frequently describes his own exasperation with the trip -- a trip he planned -- in an admission of imperfection not always present in travel literature. When they stop for the night, his guides often head off to a local bar, and Frazier routinely stays in the tent to pout. Itís curious behavior for a man who is learning Russian and left his family to spend months in Russia. Yet itís also very relatable. There is no Russian devotee so enamored, we can infer from Frazierís experience, whom Siberia will not at some point make miserable. One night Frazier and his guides reach a river with no bridge, find a ferry crossing nearby, but no ferry and no information as to when it will be there. They set up camp nearby.

"At the ferry landing the next morning there were only a few cars, but still no ferry. Soon more cars and several trucks showed up. Always sociable, Sergei and Volodya circulated among the other drivers and made conversation, but they could learn nothing definite about when the ferry might come. I preferred to sit by the van and let the waiting bother me."

The reader has a dual reaction to this scene. One the one hand, one feels zero pity for the New Yorker writer who gets to plan and execute his dream vacation. On the other hand, one has to admit that in the same position, one would be pretty pissed off about the ferry as well. Also, of course, one didnít really expect a Siberian travelogue to be rhapsodic.

Elegaic, though, in spades. When the tsars sent prisoners to Siberia, there was a single road most of them traveled. When Frazier visits it, he writes:

Not only was it long and lonesome, but it ran permanently in the wrong directions, from the exiles' point of view. Longing and melancholy seemed to have worked themselves into the very soil; the old road and the land around it seemed downcast, as if they'd had their feelings hurt by how much the people passing by did not want to be here.

Using a place as punishment may or may not be fair to the people who are punished there, but it always demeans and does a disservice to the place.

Travels in Siberia does a great service to its subject. The region is usually shrugged off for its unapproachable climate, depressing historical connotations, and mind-boggling scope, and of course those factors are enormous in the Siberian experience. But the reality of Siberia, while not a hidden utopia, is a place of charm. Frazier, an enormously gifted observer and writer who is both in love with the smell of Siberian air and not afraid to complain about its plumbing problems, is the perfect man to tell us about it.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374278725
544 Pages