October 2015

Gabino Iglesias

nonfiction

Where Bears Roam the Streets: A Russian Journal by Jeff Parker

For most people in the West, Russia is a 6,602-million-square-mile mystery. Besides some important wars, a few authors, the fact that it's really cold, and vodka, the everyday realities of life in the world's largest nation sometimes appear to be as obscure to us as those of small tribes in the Amazon basin. For author Jeff Park, the pull of Russia's mystique was too much, so he spent a lot of time in the country trying to understand every element of its culture. The result is Where Bears Roam the Streets, a nonfiction book that reads like a geopolitical/sociocultural analysis wrapped in a road novel about two friends searching for themselves and sprinkled with a bit of romance, a heavy dose of humor, and a touch of the bizarre.

Parker, whose previous work includes the novel Ovenman and the short story collection The Taste of Penny, worked as the program director for the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg between 2000 and 2008. His first encounter with Russia quickly turned into a passion, and he eventually ended up spending a good portion of each year in the country. Parker was very interested by the political and economic changes within Russia, so he set out to write a book about the country's changing realities and its rebirth as a key player in global affairs under the rule of hypermasculine President Vladimir Putin. While this could be seen as a clear plan, Russia is like a very large floating signifier that refuses to be pinned down and fully defined or understood. Parker went in with many great questions, and he learned along the way that answers would always be elusive, multilayered, and chameleonic depending on context. The result of all this confusion, and of having a great observer taking notes right in the eye of Russia's social and economic turmoil during most of the first decade of the new millennium, is narrative that's as informative and eye opening as it is weird and hilarious.

Like any diligent researcher, Parker knew that asking the right questions, and reading the right books before going, would be the first step toward a comprehensive look at Russia, so he went in with a list of smart queries:

What was Russia? How did it work? How did people live? How could they eat kholodets (meat gelatin)? Did love mean something different to them than it meant to us? Why did so many women leave the country to marry strangers? What good did it do them to know Pushkin by heart? Where did their collective stoicism come from?

All of these questions are somewhat tackled in the 328 pages that follow, but they also expand and mutate. Whether they're answered or not, one of the book's most engaging elements is the fact that most questions are dropped and replaced with more interesting and immediate ones. Understanding Russia as a country might require more than one book, but what about street slang or the proper way to participate in a banya? These are the questions that eventually present themselves to the author and the ones that make the narrative so charming.

While Parker's constant attempt at comprehension and his straightforward, engaging prose make Where Bears Roam the Streets deserving of attention, the element that turns this very personal nonfiction narrative into the kind of story that rivals the best fiction in terms of entertainment is Igor, a heavy-drinking, broken-English-speaking young man whose romantic woes, personal philosophies, and views about Russia enrich the text immensely while also giving it a special flavor and adding a few of the most emotional passages of the book.

The beauty of Where Bears Roam the Streets is that, while never fully abandoning the frame provided by large events, Parker decided to focus his storytelling on the lives of everyday Russians. This emphasis on regular individuals from all walks of life make the book read like a collective biography that starts out as Parker's story, is filtered though his friend Igor's, and often deviates from them to that of girlfriends, family members, random people, and even strangers. That being said, there is also a lot of research present, and Parker seamlessly weaves it into his stories of people and travels in a way that keeps it from being boring or too academic while giving a lot of valuable information about the country:

Even before the global crisis, Russia was embroiled in what some described as a crisis of the family. The crisis of the family enveloping the nation had many dimensions and direct connections to other social ills: alcoholism, domestic abuse, divorce, low birth rates, etc. The population of Russia had been in decline for more than a decade and was expected to drop by 667,000 in 2008.

Where Bears Roam the Streets is a brave, ambitious project. Parker never denies the limitations imposed by his Western filter, but he dives into new experiences with a keen eye, a thirst for knowledge, and an almost palpable desire to absorb and then communicate how each experience relates to Russia as a whole, the individuals present, and himself. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he maintains his mix of personal, humorous, and informative prose throughout the entire text. The answers to the giant enigma that is Russia are not be found here, but there are plenty of answers, and following Parker as he finds them is a lot of fun.

Where Bears Roam the Streets: A Russian Journal by Jeff Parker
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-1554683826
368 pages