The works of Siberian author Yuri Rytkheu have been met with awards and strong sales throughout Europe and Japan. Largely unknown in the U.S., Rytkheu has written 10 novels and is regarded as the definitive voice of the Chukchi people, native Asians who live in Siberia near the Bearing Strait. As a child of the Siberian village of Uelen, Rytkheu has firsthand knowledge of these people; the author has hunted whales, sailed the Bearing Sea, explored the Arctic, defended the Chukchi since the fall of the Soviet Union, and championed Siberia’s environment in the face of capitalists bent on extracting that region’s natural resources.
Recently translated by Archipelago Books, which specializes in works in translation, Rytkheu’s A Dream In Polar Fog is the story of John MacLennan, a white sailor who discovers the wilds of remote Siberia as an adopted member of a Chukchi village. This novel is half of a picaresque–the book has an episodic, meandering plot filled with adventures, but MacLennan is more an idealistic young man than an adventuresome rogue.
When MacLennan and his fellow sailors try to blow free their ship from polar ice in the winter of 1910, MacLennan’s hands are blown up and three Chukchi reluctantly agree to make the month-long voyage to a hospital in exchange for Winchester rifles. Only a day into the trip, MacLennan’s condition worsens and an emergency native amputation is necessary. When the group returns to discover the ship has escaped the ice and left the injured sailor behind, MacLennan has a simple choice: quickly adapt to his new environment or face starvation.
With the aid of some leather implements that replace his severed hands, MacLennan learns to shoot, and from there out his survival is never in doubt. Not only that, but MacLennan is amazingly accepting of his abandonment and the loss of his hands. Further, although some of the villagers are more accepting of their white interloper than others, the book never plays on the dramatic possibilities of such a clash of cultures. There’s even an underused American industrialist. The sum of all this is that, given the material at hand, A Dream of Polar Fog, is remarkable for what little suspense it has.
It’s a questionable decision, striking the drama from a very rich situation, but in the case of A Dream In Polar Fog, the decision pays off. Instead of making MacLennan’s struggles the centerpiece, Rytkheu uses him to investigate the Chukchi people, putting their tribe and customs squarely in the center. The substitution pays off, putting an interesting spin on the “white man joins the natives” arc.
A Dream in Polar Fog is able to successfully make this substitution because of Rytkheu’s ability to reveal the intricacies of the Chukchi society through MacLennan’s adventures, without ever sounding pedantic. Rytkheu describes the customs and practices of the Chukchi society far more adeptly than he does his characters. MacLennan and the natives come off as somewhere between flat and 3-D, whereas the Chukchi society and its Siberian home is rich, nuanced, and surprising. Rytkheu aptly picks and conveys telling details, such as this one in which Orvo, a village elder, explains to MacLennan why they have broken a fallen villager’s weapons before burying them with him:
That’s the custom . . . we broke the sled so that he doesn’t decide to use it to come back. But the gun and the sticks we break so that bad people don’t get at them. We didn’t break them before . . . It was when the white men started coming to our shores, they took to robbing even the dead.
There’s a lot packed in here. First, the matter-of-fact tone about returning from the afterlife to use the sled is spot-on, as though they understand a dead tribesman as a naughty boy is eager to rejoin life on earth unless they take the necessary steps. Then there’s the matter of breaking and burying of the weapons; it’s as a very costly gesture of respect to the dead (rifles are highly prized and hard to come by; sometimes they make the difference between life and death), but is also an acknowledgment of the encroaching whites. Last, there’s the resigned indignation in Orvo’s voice over the white men he knows he can’t stop from robbing his tribe’s dead. Then sentiment itself does not tell us much about Orvo, but it cuts very deep to the spirit of the Chukchi people.
There are also descriptions of nature that expertly convey an understanding of the landscape and the humans’ interaction with it. Here, Rytkheu describes a nascent winter ice field threatening a ship.
There appeared on the horizon a harmless-looking white stripe–the most terrifying sight in the whole of the Arctic Ocean. . . .
By evening, the white stripe became a clearly recognizable ice field. . . .
For three days they ran, and the ice field relentlessly followed, always gaining. In the evenings, when darkness descended over the water, and the ice was lost from view, the sailors’ hearts filled with hope that they had outrun the white death on their heels.
But by morning, as soon as pale dawn rose over them, the ice shone more brightly than morning light, and the sailors, standing around in despairing silence, could hear the grind and crackle of the ice floes.
Again, there’s nothing particularly unique about a sailor’s “heart filling with hope,” but the story of the interaction speaks volumes. There’s the innocuous-looking white stripe that Rytkheu flat-out tells us is the most terrifying sight in all the Arctic. There’s the sailors’ hope and self-deception that they’ve outrun the ice at night, only to see it implacably reappear the next day. And there’s the ice shining more brightly than the sun, the whole scene silent but for the horrid sound of the ice grinding upon itself.
In my interview with Dalkey Archive director Chad Post, he said that even though it sounds cliched, one of the most important things about reading works in translation is to be able to interact with a culture foreign from your own. A Dream In Polar Fog provides an ideal space for this interaction, stringing interesting episodes in the life of John MacLennan together via an apt portrayal of the Chukchi people.
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