Travels in Siberia

Themost alchemistic thing a writer can do is take a place you’ve never been muchinterested in and turn it into something so alluring you can’t bear to turnaway. The most generous thing such a writer can do is take you there in a bookso you don’t have to go yourself.

Both are done with thesubject of Siberia by the matchless Ian Frazier (who does not know how to writea disappointing book—just pick up GreatPlains or On the Rez or any one of seven others). If you are alreadyinterested in this vast and largely unknown place, then after reading histreatment of it, you are liable to buy a ticket there immediately. He coversmany of the reasons you might proceed with caution, but even these are likelyto impassion. Like I said: alchemy.

His new book, Travels in Siberia, has the immense sweep of a place that seemsunreal—not a country or a territory, he reminds us, but more like a concept ora literary conceit that nonetheless takes up the northern third of Asia—and ithas the tiny idiosyncratic particulars that make it altogether real; in this itreminds one of a painting by Bosch. Except, in a way, Siberia is a lot weirder.

Still, or maybe because ofthis, Frazier adores it. Like a lover, his gaze takes in every detail—Look! heralmond eyes!  And look! her sweater’shole!—with equal overspilling enthusiasm. The very idea of Russia has gottenunder his skin, and when he actually arrives . . . “No bells or sirenswent off as we crossed into Russian airspace. I felt I was in an X-ray machine:a big change had taken place, but silently and invisibly.”  His explanation of, or rather hisexplanation of how he cannot explain, his infatuation with this grand, strangecountry is an emotive tour de force. 

The reasons the readerloves Frazier’s work are easier to name. For one, there’s his irrepressiblehumor, which arises unexpectedly to provoke outright laughter (on encounteringno fewer than five weddings in an afternoon of driving, Frazier notes, “Icouldn’t tell whether the bridal couples had actually been married on thehighway or were just having their receptions there”) and displays hiscredentials as one of our finest comic writers, which he also shows in The New Yorker. For another, there’s theway he paints himself winsomely into the corner of the picture; no matter howmajestic the scene, there he is down there, winking. For a third, there’s hisabsolute mastery of narrative prose, its rhythmic propulsion and digressivepowers. There is little he is not interested in, and little he does not cover(Russian literary history, lunch, purges, landscape, the Revolution, economics,fishing, ballet, the tsars). He is the tour guide who talks your ear off, butwho fascinates anyway.

Indeed,when was the last time you heard someone get at the essence of a place just byexamining its smell? Frazier made the country more real for me than a wholestack of Kodachrome postcards (or even the author’s own pencil drawings, sweetthough these are) in describing the Russian national smell as made up of sourmilk, diesel, cucumber peel, and several other disparate items. Then there arecolors (lots of cement-gray, apparently, and manmade chemical tones),flavors—berries and mushrooms—and, overwhelmingly, people’s faces, bodies,clothes. This is a book made of textures.

There are some standoutsin a work that seems to be all standout (except for some passages of historyyou may feel guilty for thinking a tad boring, wishing he’d get back to thebroken-down-van ride across nine thousand miles, which is the true heart ofthese pages). One of them is his description of the epic swarms of mosquitoes:

            Withsuch astronomical numbers, Siberian mosquitoes have learned to diversify. Thereare the majority, of course, who just bite you anywhere. Those are your generalpractitioner mosquitoes, or GPs. Then you have your specialists—your eye, ear,nose, and throat mosquitoes.

Another is . . . well, just about every vignette of a chancemeeting—and that is all he had, months’ worth of daily chance meetings—withSiberians (also Russians and other foreigners): “. . . the usual RussianMiss Universes, some in really unseasonal outfits, went step-stepping along.”He picks only the telling details, lines them up just right, and zing: a comic masterpiece in miniature. Thenhe repeats the success again and again.

Not that it’s all funny. Frazierhas a refined taste for the melancholic, too, and Siberia is the station tofill your tank full of that. Lonely roads through lonelier expanses, the longhistory of breathtaking cruelties, the sense that there is so much space andvery few people to care about it; mostly, though, the feeling that in this insularplace, so many lives have been launched, ended, then forgotten that it seemssaturated with a true existential hopelessness that is somehow heartening inits grandeur: “the blankness of eternity.”

This is only nominally atravel book; really, it is a valentine. Although he still did not succeed inmaking me want to go—even the most aching love poem does not make you desirethe exact subject of its lines, just one of your own—I am glad. For the realSiberia might pale next to the enrapturing lands seen through the eyes of thelovesick, and genius, Ian Frazier.