A Dream in Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu (Telegram Books) is one of those books that has languished on my bookshelves for a long time now. But it’s not a lack of interest that has prevented me from reading it thus far. Ever since I featured this book in a Daily Bookshot in the summer of last year I’ve wanted to read it, and not just because of its exquisite cover (a reproduction of Count Georg von Rosen’s 1886 painting, The Explorer A. E. Nordenskiold).
No, my desire to read this novel runs much deeper than a simple love for a fancy cover (heaven help me if I ever do show myself to be so shallow ). Rather it’s the fundamental driving force that more often than not fuels my passion for any translated fiction, and that ‘driving force’ lies in being given the opportunity to learn about cultures which are largely and/or totally unfamiliar to me. Before I go on to tell you a little more about that however, it’s probably best that I run through the cover blurb which I should warn you, does contain a few mild spoilers:
When ice traps John MacLennan’s ship in the Bering Strait in 1910, the youthful sailor, trying to widen a small fissure with dynamite, blows up his hands. His captain hires several local Chukchi men to take him by dogsled to a Russian doctor and vows that the ship will wait for his safe return. But gangrene sets in, and John’s hands have to be amputated by a local medicine woman. Then strong winds break the ice shelf and his ship sails off without him…
John gradually learns to adapt to his handicap, and to the Chukchi way of life, finding friendship. and love, among his hosts. Even his role in the tragic, accidental death of his dear friend, Toko, pulls him deeper into the community’s folds.
This is a remarkable tale of resilience and reconciliation, set in one of the most majestic and inhospitable environments on earth.
So rather a dramatic plot I’m sure you’ll agree, but as I’ve mentioned translated fiction for me is more about the cultural experience. I’m ashamed to admit that I am completely in the dark with regards to the Chukchi – a small group of indigenous people who have carved out an existence for hundreds of years, on and around a peninsula in the inhospitable region of northeastern Siberia. Living in the face of such a harsh climate (winter temperatures apparently get as low as –65° F), and existing under the shadow of a Russian neighbour who has long persecuted them, life for the Chukchi must have been something of a difficult one. Regardless, the Chukchi appear to have doggedly stuck by their own culture.
Of course absorption into the Soviet system has resulted in a dilution of Chukchi culture, but this novel is set during the second half of the nineteenth-century when the Chukchi were more of an autonomous race and their culture would have been been largely, although not entirely, untarnished by outside influences. Given that the Chukchi only developed a written language in 1932 (they preferred to stick by their ancestral pictographic system of documentary recording), one can only marvel at how exotic and unique Chukchi culture must be in its original form, and look forward to journey of discovery which lies ahead.
Of course when dealing with such a little known race (to me), it’s best to learn from an authoritative voice i.e. someone ‘in the know’. And what makes A Dream in Polar Fog all the more an exciting reading prospect for me is that the ‘voice’ for this novel probably doesn’t get much more authoritative, given that it was penned by a Chukchi; a writer considered to be the ‘father of Chukchi literature’.
Writing in both in Russian and Chukchi, Yuri Rytkheu (you can see a photo of him here) was, it would seem, a lonesome literary ambassador for his people throughout his life. Rytkheu was born into a family of Chukchi hunters in 1930, and after studying literature at Leningrad State University he set about the task of telling the world about his people, their culture, and ‘silent genocide’ against the Chukchis which came about under Soviet rule. He has written a number of books all featuring the Chukchi, and many of these have been translated into a number of languages, with A Dream in Polar Fog probably being one of Rytkheu’s better known novels to be translated into English. Sadly however, after a long battle with myeloma, Yuri Rytkheu was to pass away in May 2008.
Of course with A Dream in Polar Fog being set in a period long before the Soviet-era I very much doubt that this novel will have anything much to do with Soviet oppression (unless it’s presented allegorically of course). However, I do know that this novel is definitely going be steeped in the rich and fascinating culture of the Chukchi people, and in a more untarnished form. Rytkheu not only looks to be gifting us with what looks to a compelling storyline – a man with horrendous injuries trying to survive in an hostile environment – but we are also being given the opportunity of discovering just how an outsider can manage to adapt and fit in to such an alien and unique culture; a culture which inherently lives deep in the author’s soul. That to me makes A Dream in Polar Fog the remarkable reading prospect that it is. I’m literally itching to set off .
So that concludes my forethoughts on A Dream in Polar Fog and I hope that you will come back in a few days to discover just how my journey through Chukchi culture worked out. Meantime look out for incidentals and comments in my reading journal and/or on Twitter.
Telegram Books | February 2008 (UK) | £8.99 | PAPERBACK | 337 PP | ISBN: 9781846590405
A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.
Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.