Tuesday January 11th, 2011

Into the Wild

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pp., $30.00

There’s a reason that affluent European and American tourists don’t flock to Siberia. In fact, there are several. First, the mosquitoes.

In his latest book, Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier writes of how, while walking outside the Siberian village of Maltsevo in 2001, he and his traveling companions “had to wave [their] hands before [them] like windshield wipers on the fastest setting” to guard against a swarm. That summer, Frazier often wore a nakomarnik, a “a special antimosquito hat” that “resembled something a beekeeper might wear,” but his nakomarnik didn’t protect his oatmeal, in which he usually found “a few mosquito bodies,” or one special breakfast of “eggs, potatoes, onions and peppers” that “had mosquito bodies sprinkled through it like coriander.”

Frazier writes, “I have been in mosquito swarms in beaver meadows in northern Michigan, in wetlands in Canada, and near Alaska’s Yukon River. Western Siberia has more. On calm and sultry evenings . . . mosquitoes came at us as if shot from a fire hose.” Is it me, or does this passage have the cadence of a blurb you might find in a cheap travel brochure (with the wrong content, of course)?

It might be easier even to sell Siberia’s -90 degree cold. This is the temperature sometimes reached, Frazier reports, in the northeast-central Siberian city of Verkhoyansk: “When I mentioned this frequently noted Siberian fact to my friends and guides in St. Petersburg, they scoffed, as Russians tend to do. Then they said they knew of someplace in Siberia even colder.”

Then there’s the effect of the cold on public restrooms: “liquids freeze very quickly,” Frazier says, “and over the months a sort of stalagmite effect is created, growing up through the hole in the floor,” the hole being an efficiency version of a toilet.

All in all, Siberia would seem like the sort of place for which, unless you are born there, a taste is acquired — and hard-won. If not because of the mosquitoes, the cold and the public restrooms, then for its frontier inconveniences and grotesqueries — train crossings along the Trakt, the main trans-Siberian artery, so slow that “people in the waiting cars would unpackage drinks and snacks, throw their doors open, stretch out their legs, and get comfortable”; an airport — the city of Provideniya’s — where “plane wrecks had merely been moved over to one side of the runway.”

But it didn’t take long for Frazier to acquire it. He traces his affection for Russia back to his first visit — in fact, to his fist hour in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. He had stopped to examine “a large vividly red spill of liquid — possibly raspberry syrup, possibly transmission fluid” on the floor at the foot of stairs leading to passport control when he was smitten. Inhaling, he caught a whiff not of the spill but of the “smell of Russia,” which has “a lot of diesel fuel in it, and cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk, and a sweetness — currant jam, or mulberries crushed into the waffle treads of heavy boots — and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement.”

He followed the scent east. Frazier’s two most spectacular Siberian journeys are each described in their own long section. One was a March 2005 visit that included a ride in a four-wheel drive Niva on the “ice road” that forms when Lake Baikal freezes and, en route to visit a famous reindeer racer and his family in Topolinoe, a native Even village, a perilous ride on the Topolinskaya Highway, over “pass after pass . . . guardrailless, downward sloping at the outward edges, sidewalk-narrow above drop-offs of thousands of feet, with Tinkertoy wrecked vehicles at the far, far distant bottoms.” The other was an epic 9,000-mile trek in 2001 from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, along the transcontinental Trakt, which he made with two Russian guides, Sergei Lunev and Vladimir Chumak (Volodya), in a former dairy delivery van bought for $4,500.

There might be something inherently untrustworthy in a short book about Siberia — the writer must attempt to do justice to the subject’s ponderous vastness — but Frazier’s accounts of these two trips could have stood alone, without his writing about visits to St. Petersburg and Moscow (though some of this writing is wonderful) or about stays in Nome, Alaska, in the 1990s, where he would hole up in the Nome Nugget Hotel, read hard-to-find books about Siberia in the public library, and dine at a Szechwan restaurant with a large TV while waiting for the weather to clear for a flight across the Bering Strait to Siberia’s far northeast. Especially in contrast to his later adventures, his Nome routine is soporific. Frazier also muses too frequently about the proximity of the U.S. to Russia, without acknowledging that his ruminations will inevitably conjure memories of a certain well-appointed porch in Wasilla.

One of Frazier’s most famous books, Great Plains, is a freewheeling paean to the center of the U.S. With Travels in Siberia, he has fixed his position as our nonfiction bard of flyover territory, a writer dedicated to celebrating flatlands, chronicling their beauty and examining their wounds. (Siberia is flyover territory more in theory than in practice. During the Cold War, Frazier notes, “almost all the missile arcs went over Siberia.”)

As America’s plains states still bear scars of the extermination of the Indians, Siberia’s wilderness is pocked by the ruins of Stalin-era Gulag labor camps, which Frazier spotted frequently but never saw close up. When he expressed his interest in visiting them, Sergei “folded his brow into its deepest furrows and winced and shook his head and gave me fragments of reasons why this search for prisons could not be done.” He finally got a closer view near the end of his 2005 winter journey, after hiking with Sergei down a hill in thigh-deep snow toward a guard tower he spotted riding back from Topolinoe.

I should have said by now that Travels in Siberia is not merely a travelogue, but a travel book of the most ambitious kind, one that weaves present observations with deeply researched social history — of the raiding Mongols, who, Frazier shares, would eat “meat tenderized by being ridden on all day beneath a saddle” and of generations of political exiles, from early Tsarist times through Stalin. Frazier knows that Stalin-era prisoners slept on “mattresses stuffed with sawdust”; “received no food during their twelve-hour workday”; and afterwards “had to stand in formation for . . . roll call while the sweat froze in their clothes,” and he writes about these circumstances in his account of his visit to the camp near Topolinoe, which, curiously, he decides not to enter, though Sergei does: “Going in seemed to be something for him to do rather than me; he was next of kin, in a sense, while I was merely a foreign observer.”

Frazier’s account of his visit to the camp — the only one he visited — is brief and emotionally nimble: even as he remembers the prisoners’ suffering, he allows himself to notice, in “a small swirl of scrollwork [that] had been carved” at the end of each of several boards covering the roof, unexpected beauty, and puzzles over “an embellishment so out of place.” And it’s all we need in a book that is, at its heart, a romance.

Frazier’s love — he often uses that word to describe his feelings for Russia — is most evident in his playful and descriptive writing, at once as precise as any nonfiction writer’s and suburban American folksy. From a helicopter window, he views the sea ice in the Bering Strait: “In places where linen-white ice expanses met, the lines of crunched-up ice pieces were the exact same blue as Comet Cleanser.” The lower trunks of a birch grove outside the city of Ekaterinburg are “black as a bar code against a sunny meadow behind them.” Frazier creates the effect of seeing Russia through the eyes of a normal guy from New Jersey — or perhaps, your own. His standard rule is to never use an adjective when a reference to something you might find in a typical American kitchen, grocery store or basement will do.

Frazier’s common touch also comes through in his trademark topic sentences, which are dispensed frequently in a hilarious opening primer on Siberia’s topography and geopolitics: “As a landmass, Siberia got some bad breaks geographically.” “The problem with Siberia’s big rivers is the direction they flow.” Read out of context, they could be the work of a sixth-grader in a B+ social studies report. In context, they’re evidence of the wit of a writer whose mastery has a lot to do with his ability to change speeds and registers, which he does in this book to great effect, both honoring his grand subject and mining it for down-home humor.

Michael Rymer writes about education for the Village Voice and about books for Coldfront Magazine. He lives in the Bronx.

Mentioned in this review:

Travels in Siberia
Great Plains