I finished reading Ian Frazier’s long and funny Travels in Siberia on a snowy night, which proved to be Montreal’s first real return to winter.
Much of Frazier’s travels take place during a late-summer ramble he made with two supremely strange but likable Russian guides. Upon returning to his New Jersey home and Manhattan circle of writer friends, he was met with repeated disappointment when he told them that his Siberia hadn’t been cold at all, but swampy, mosquito-ridden, a gigantic expanse of forests, riverways, rutted roads and rail lines.
Frazier will be familiar to readers of The New Yorker, where he routinely publishes essays and humour pieces. In 1989, three issues of the magazine were devoted to his loving and sharp-eyed view of the history and contemporary state of the American Great Plains.
Work on Travels in Siberia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) began in 1993, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. He became “infected with a love of Russia,” which led him to return repeatedly to the huge area of the country east of St. Petersburg, which touches the Arctic Circle, shares its long southern border with China and Mongolia, and whose Pacific coast stretches from the Sea of Japan to within a few miles of the Alaskan coast.
Travel books often traffic in clichés, but Frazier relies on none of them. His book is not aimed at helping intrepid readers approximate his Siberian route. And he does not make the effort to convince his readers that understanding Siberia will aid them in comprehending post-Cold War economics, political trends or climate issues. Frazier is astute on these fronts, but he addresses them indirectly. The guiding and constant goal of his book is to convey his own unexplainable love for Russia, and to explore the strangest, the richest, the most foreign aspects of Russian culture and daily life.
Frazier and his two guides travelled over much of Siberia in a Renault van that contributed its own narrative of spectacular and farcical breakdowns, followed by spit and glue repairs on the roadside.
But deep into Siberia, roadways give way to train travel; Frazier and his companions pack themselves and the Renault into a boxcar (a vagon in Russian) for a bizarre overnight ride with a pair of other east-bound vehicles and their passengers. A rented truck and drivers take them farther, across ice roads on Lake Baikal and up the frozen Lena River.
The cities of Siberia, many built on spec on the taiga during Soviet times, are an odd agglomeration of old Russia, with revered wooden chapels, disregarded monumental statues of Lenin and weird modern creations, like the Mega-Ikea Mall at Novosibirsk. Its parking lot is empty, but locals trudge from bus stops to shop the “hallways as wide as airplane runways.” The mall’s background Muzak is “bizarre, unthreatening American country songs, in a style that might be called shopping country.”
On his winter travels Frazier is often put up in the homes of Russians, who convey a mix of love and distress over the challenges of northeastern Russian lives. On his initial summer trip, his lead guide is forever on the lookout for acceptable places to camp out. These settings, often trash strewn, evoke the margins of Russian cities, where the detritus of contemporary life is the disheartening, almost farcical borderland before one enters the countryside.
One has to dip into Travels in Siberia to appreciate how Frazier handles this aspect of Russian life without rancour, self-righteousness or western superiority. He meets it head on, usually with humour.
Near the end of his travels in Siberia, Frazier puts his finger on one of the key characteristics of his experiences. Hardly ever, while in Russia, does he feel “normal.” Sitting with a scientist friend on the major campus at Novosibirsk, he is surprised to find that he “felt normal. I had never felt just that normal in Russia before… I had been to Siberia five times, to western Russia five or six more. Never in all those travels had I felt merely normal.”
These concluding thoughts are the closest Frazier comes to explaining his Russia love. More often he operates wonderfully and straightforwardly as a recorder of the sights and scenes that motivate that love.
Norman Ravvin is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.