“Officially, there is no such place as Siberia.”
That sentence is the first in Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. Having admitted its official unreality, Frazier goes on to spend almost 500 pages trying to conjure up its existence. Frazier has previously chronicled America’s midsection in Great Plains, an account of travels across the Midwest and things Native American in On the Rez, a book focusing on life on a reservation in South Dakota. This book on Siberia, however, is more than travelogue, more than description of a place or a culture. It’s an account of one man’s love for a far off, mysterious, seemingly endless place. His desire to fully know that place whose name is practically synonymous with remoteness is never really fulfilled, and that failure fills his narrative with an engaging longing and beauty.
To be clear, Travels in Siberia is indeed a travel book. Frazier goes there repeatedly and tells the reader about driving in unreliable vehicles, riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad, taking walks through remote and tiny villages, and staying in campsites colonized by hungry mosquitoes. He sketches skylines and mountains and rivers. Most of all, he tells of the people he met in Russia and Siberia. In the mid-‘90s, Frazier accompanied some Russian artists he came to know in America on an expedition to Moscow. Following that Frazier took several trips to Nome, Alaska just south of the Arctic Circle and a convenient jumping off point to Siberia.
These trips ignited in Frazier an infatuation with Russia and Siberia in particular. It’s a case of what he calls “dread Russia love” to which American Midwesterners seem especially susceptible. Frazier cannot rationally explain the hold Russia exerts on many people including himself. It’s “an independent force out there in the ether of ideas”. That mysterious affection catapults him on an epic journey by van across the whole of Siberia in the summer of 2001. The story of that journey is a brilliant mix of wit, detail, and affection combined with honesty and sympathy.
Frazier’s eye for physical description is fantastic. The often bare landscapes he encounters are meticulously rendered. His repeated encounters with trash form an ongoing theme to the journey. Trash heaps seem to be everywhere in Siberia, crowding the sides of roads, rivers and clogging city streets. Eventually those trash heaps lead him to an epiphanic sight: an ocean cove in Vladivostok with a beach composed entirely of broken glass. Beer drinkers had apparently converged on the site for decades, smashing their bottles, and the ocean had polished the glass shards into something “gorgeous, like a shattered church mosaic” agitated by the waves and then spread out in glittering array. The scene and Frazier’s description of it came be taken for his whole journey through Siberia. Russia is maddeningly inept, smelly, dirty and yet beautiful. Frazier is repulsed and attracted by Siberia and its vastness and unruliness but keeps finding strange and beautiful attractions.
These contrasts beguile Frazier and the reader and he communicates them with a light touch. He’s a very funny writer. It’s not a laugh out loud, joke telling sort of humor, but an observational keenness which repeatedly brings a smile to the reader. This quality allows the reader to glide through what is, honestly, a very long book. He finds humor all over the place in Siberia. His take on Siberian bathrooms is a classic:
“What I have to say next concerns the Omsk airport men’s room. I regret this. I’ve noticed that in books by Siberian travelers of the past they don’t talk about bathrooms, and that’s probably good. I reluctantly break with this tradition for two reasons. First, I am an American, and Americans pay attention to and care about bathrooms … The men’s room at the Omsk airport was unbelievably disgusting. Stepping through the door, or even near the door, was like receiving a blow to the face from the flat of a hand… The floor was strewn with filth of a wide and eye-catching variety.”
He notices things such as the translated names of Russian villages: “Puddle, Jellies, Knee, New Knee and Smokes” and Genghis Khan’s recipe for a fulfilled life: “to cut my enemies in pieces, drive them before me, seize their possessions, witness the tears of those who are dear to them and to embrace their wives and daughters.”
With this appealing prose style, Frazier delves deep into the history of Siberia to try to find the core of the place. In fact, Frazier’s book is as much about books he has read as it is about his journey. Frazier is adept at outlining a history, or an explorer’s account of a previous journey or the results of reading from many books on the Mongols or the Decembrists or personalities from the previous centuries walked into Siberian exile. Frazier loves books about Russia and Siberia as much as he loves the place itself. He brings many previous authors into focus like John Reed, the author of Ten Days That Shook the World and George Kennan, an American explorer of Siberia in the 19th century who reminds the reader of Frazier himself. Great figures of the past are as vivid as those Frazier meets face to face. Genghis Kahn, the legendary Mongol overlord, fascinates Frazier and the reader. There many others: Mikhail Bakunin, a colorful revolutionary, who succeeded in escaping Siberia prisons in the mid-1800s, The Tsars, the Decembrists—all of these past figures tromp through the pages of Frazier prose, delightfully rendered alive.
The strength of the book ultimately lies in Frazier’s ability to convey his relationship to Russia. He tries, in his own words, to “reconcile the passion I felt for Russia with the way Russia actually is”. He has a masterful eye for character sketches, managing to capture the sense of a person in a few sentences But his most captivating character is himself. He has fallen in love with this impossible lover and as much as he is unsparing in his detailing the shortcomings of his beloved (bathrooms, insects, a penchant for extreme cold and not least, the deadly prisons—past and present—found throughout Siberia) he is equally honest in showing his own shortcomings. His peevishness, disappointments, anger and mistakes on his long trips are front and center. His distrust of the ram shackle van that he and his guides drive across Siberia takes on a metaphysical quality: Volodya, one of his native Russian companions, eventually gives up trying to explain why the vehicle won’t work and says “what was wrong with the car could not be said in words”.
The same could be said of much of Siberia. Though the aim of the book is to do just that, Siberia and Russia itself cannot be explained in words. Frazier repeatedly invokes its mystery and vastness. It’s a place of such distance but here, in contrast to America, the “road” brings to mind not escape and possibility and reinvention of self but punishment, imprisonment and “the deep and ancient sorrow of exile”. In Siberia, a journey has often meant a form of death (and often death itself), cut off from the living, banished to that physical and metaphorical place of ultimate exile. The sadness and suffering that pervades the history of Siberia stays with the reader. The suffering of the countless millions who trudged their way into Siberia seems to be a part of the very soul of the Russian people through the centuries. One episode of Old Believers being persecuted and exiled illustrates perfectly this sense of long suffering that Frazier captures:
“Avvakum and the other exiles eventually are marching back to Moscow, and the months of journeying drag on and on, Avvakum records a conversation between himself and his wife that is a Russian moment for the ages. The two are among a group walking along on ice, unable to keep up with the horses, and Avvakum says, “My poor old woman tramped along, tramped along, and at last she fell, and another weary soul stumbled over her, and he fell too, and they both screamed, and were not able to get up… And I came up, and she, poor soul, began to complain to me, saying, ‘How long, archpriest, are these sufferings to last? And I said, ‘Markovna! till our death.” And she, with a sigh, answered, ‘So be it, Petrovich; let us be getting on our way.’”
Frazier’s book is excellent but with one major fault. It has a perfect ending which, unfortunately, is not the end of the book. Frazier finds himself at the end of his long summer journey across Siberia at the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the Sikhote-Alin mountains. There he and his companions joyfully swim in the ocean, having made it across Siberia. Frazier notes, “Today was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.” Not many authors are given such a perfect ending to a very good book. Alas, Frazier discards the gift and continues the narrative for another less than satisfying 140 pages. What is included in this last section are some strange sections of prose where Frazier goes into bullet point mode, communicating in notes and phrases rather than sentences, and an account of a winter time journey through Siberia. There are worthwhile portions in this final Part IV of the book but, it needlessly lengthens the book and ruins a perfect narrative arc which culminated on the beach on 9/11.
Even so, such complaints are small quibbles. Frazier has a written a very fine book, an exceptional example of travel writing, near the top of the list, and a lasting love letter to Siberia.