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Siberia

(Soft Skull Press)

The creative urge is a blessing and a curse. Artists, writers, musicians, etc., all put their souls into their work—even the worst of us—and there’s often little reward. Strike that—the work is the reward, of course, but no one can pay the bills or put food on the table with creative satisfaction alone. 


Everyone starts small. Of course there are those who seem born into literary or artistic greatness, but for every wunderkind prodigy, there’s a small town hick who just happened to have an interest in the world outside their city’s limits and develop a passion for life on their own. Nikolai Maslov is the latter. Siberia is the story of Maslov’s life in the remote region of the former Soviet Union. Told in soft, gentle pencils, Maslov chronicles his adolescence, a stint in the Red Army, bouncing from job to job, a mental breakdown and redemption in the arms of his art and his family. 


Hailing from a tiny Siberian village, Maslov’s family struggles to survive but remains close. Young Nikolai is more sensitive than others around him, and tuned to a different frequency. Still, he tries to fit in, drinking with his comrades and working in construction. Art is there for him, like so many others, as a means of escape, a way of seeing the world in a different way. 


He soon becomes a dedicated Francophile—this book was originally published in France as Une jeunesse sovietique—and marvels at the works of Monet and Cezanne. The impression left by the Impressionists is unmistakable in his pencils: soft strokes, unadorned by ink or color, give up as much detail as they leave out, creating a gray and white dreamscape one gets lost in as the story progresses. Buildings and fields look blurred at first glance, but reveal unseen details at a second. Each panel in the story deserves a closer look. 


Maslov draws buildings and landscapes beautifully, but his depiction of tanks and helicopters during the military portion of the story have a flat, studied quality, like they were lifted from one of those free art tests advertised on television. Strangely, he renders other lifeless objects like telephone wires and radio towers with a ghostly quality that seems to come right off the page. The wisps of pencil lines are so faint, yet so striking, a style that is echoed in the story as a whole. 


There is very little writing in the book because Maslov’s pencils do the bulk of the storytelling. Still, the narration is measured and exact, quiet declarations of story and feeling that tastefully accompany the artists’ style. When an image suffices, Maslov lets it do all the talking. 
Maslov’s storytelling is brisk but slightly confusing at times. At first the story follows a standard linear path, but as time wears on and the author’s life grows more complex, things break up and the story begins slipping around. It’s a confusing shift, but the dreamlike nature of the artwork smoothes out the transition. 


Memoir and autobiography are subject to these sorts of strange shifts. Memory isn’t linear because our brains will drag up any number of thoughts and feelings to a single event whether they’re actually relevant or not. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to remember that some of the scenes and characters in Siberia are probably condensed. The facts are important, obviously, but so is the writing (a lesson James Frey should have learned a long time ago). There’s no way of knowing how much Maslov condensed or altered, but he acknowledges in the story that memory isn’t always to be relied upon and that even important facts can’t always be recalled. In the most poignant moment in a book full of them, Maslov is drafted into the Red Army and proclaims his adolescence to be over. When he tries to recall his ailing father’s face as he read the boy’s draft notice, he can’t. Maslov steps away from the story he’s telling and acknowledges the failure of memory. Instead, there’s only a gray pencil shadow of his father, an impression. This is how memory works—it’s haze and shadows, with a definite feeling of how things were, even if the details aren’t there. Siberia is filled with these images, snapshots of the monumental and the trivial. 


In the end, after all struggling as an artist and a person in the Soviet Union, Maslov passes on this wisdom to his children: look for truth and kindness in life, “otherwise, what’s life for?”
It’s a simple moral, but it hits like a ton of bricks at the story’s end. Were there nothing else in the story, this fortune cookie wisdom might have ruined the piece. Instead, it’s just a piece of homespun wisdom from someone who’s seen what a lack of truth and kindness can do to people. 


But this isn’t what Siberia‘s really about. There are many stories and many questions asked here, but there are no real solutions. On the one hand, the books is about the idea of home, and how home is often the most beautiful place in the world, particularly when you’ve seen the outside world. 


But it’s in reading the afterword by French author (and Siberia‘s original publisher) Emmanuel Carrere that one gets the real point of the book. Carrere writes that Maslov presented a few panels of his work to a publisher when he was working as a night watchman. The publisher wanted to see more, but Maslov said he could not continue to work unless the publisher would give him an advance, enough money to allow him to quit his job and work full time on the book. This was not a demand of an artistic diva, but rather a plea to help him finish the story he needed to tell. Ultimately, Siberia is about the creative urge and how it’s like an illness that can be relieved but rarely cured. Maslov tries to “make it” as an artist but is continually turned away because he has no connections or people don’t understand his work. The book isn’t a 100 page rant about how the art world is missing Maslov’s genius, it’s about how creativity, in all its forms, haunts the individuals it afflicts. 


Looking at a tall, beautiful building, Maslov thinks to himself, “Is there any way to reach such heights nowadays?” Maslov is saddled with the weight of history, with trying to make an impression upon a world filled with beautiful, important work. He struggles with his own work as much as he does with the work of others. It’s a challenge all creative people must face. 
Carerre writes that Maslov has no plans for another book, that Siberia could very well be the definitive statement that Nikolai Maslov needed to make as an artist. If so, Maslov has achieved heights graphic novelists will have to look up to for a long, long time.

Jeremy Estes lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


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