'Travels in Siberia': Ian Frazier's monumental Russian road trip
Ian Frazier's "Travels in Siberia" is the story of an American writer whose fascination with the vast Russian hinterland turns into a road trip, despite his Russian friends' advice not to do it. Frazier discusses his book Sunday at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
Ian FrazierThe author of "Travels in Siberia" will discuss his book at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library's central branch, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org). Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Russia has a smell. "There's a lot of diesel fuel in it, and cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk, and a sweetness — currant jam, or mulberries crushed into the waffle treads of heavy boots, and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement," writes Ian Frazier.
"Travels in Siberia" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pp., $28) is the story of an American writer who becomes fascinated with the vast Russian hinterland. Frazier takes a brief trip there, then a jaunt from Alaska, across the Bering Sea. He is struck by the bleakness, the scars of a political past, the intense talk around cups of hot tea. He plans a road trip all the way across Russia — a venture his Russian friends have never done and don't really approve of.
Most of Frazier's book is about this road trip, made in a van with a Russian guide and an assistant. Like many guides, this Russian is both indispensable and an irritation; much of the book is shot through with the continuing tension between the two men. The guide — hired through friends — is capable but controlling. He resists anything that touches controversy, particularly the communist-era prison camps. Frazier wants to look for them, and the guide will not.
This is a problem. A road trip across Siberia might have led to deep conversations about the events of the past 70 years. But that would have required a different guide.
There is much history in Frazier's account, but it is book history. Much is fascinating, such as the story of the 19th-century American George Kennan — a relative of the diplomat — who traveled in the Russian Far East to survey a route for a telegraph cable that was never laid. But by the end of his road trip, Frazier still had not visited one of the prison camps or seen Siberia in winter. He does manage those things, but at the book's end, when the guide is gone. His account seems tacked-on.
Despite these shortcomings, the meat of the book is the road trip. Here everything in Siberia is fresh and new. Frazier, author of "Great Plains" and "On the Rez," is a master of conveying first impressions — the grossness of Russian restrooms, the boundless look of land without fences, the summer snowfall of road trash, the modernity of Siberian cities. (Novosibirsk, he says, reminds him of "Seattle with Lenin statues" — not noting, though, that we do have a Lenin statue.)
Frazier also sketches with pen and ink, and the book contains some evocative work — sparse and precise, as if traced. Mostly he sketches with words. He describes one man as "a thin, shy, bespectacled man with the attentive manner of someone who always expects to hear something great."
Frazier is especially good at bringing the reader along with him. You feel his apprehension when the radiator springs a leak and his satisfaction when the guide finds a "radiator repair hovel." You feel his discomfort when, at one of the rare campgrounds, the drunken camper at the next site breaks up a park bench for firewood — and when the park ranger starts punching him in the face.
Siberia is a different country. You can get quite a feel for it in this book.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.
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