Yuri Rytkheu’s A Dream in Polar Fogis set on the coast of the Chukotka peninsula, a piece of the world rarely visited even by literature. David Masiel gave us the riveting, too-wild-to-be-fiction debut 2182 kHz, about a hard-luck sailor stumbling through the Arctic Ocean and the even chillier waters of personal despair, but it was grounded in the lives of whites, as is most Arctic fiction.
Polar Fog‘s hero is also a white sailor. We meet John MacLennan in 1910, hailing from Ontario, an idealistic, capable college drop-out who’s signed on to sail the Russian Arctic for the adventure of it. He’s not electrifying, but he’s thoughtful, handy and resilient; a heartier embodiment of fair play and human decency would be tough to come by in any climate. The ship he’s sailing on gets icebound along the coast of extreme Northeastern Siberia, John injures himself attempting to free it, and the local Chukcha, native hunters, agree to rush him by dogsled to the nearest hospital in the Russian town of Anadyr.
The rest of the book’s plot is best experienced firsthand, but suffice it to say Rytkheu takes John and the readers deep into the lives of the locals. The Chukcha of A Dream in Polar Fog, hunters who live in huts of reindeer skin, are rendered with character and nuance too rarely afforded indigenous peoples. The narrative follows John, but moves comfortably from his thoughts and opinions to those of the people around him, juggling their individual backgrounds and relative language barriers so masterfully that only when a reader steps back to consider it does the magnitude of the accomplishment sink in.
A Dream in Polar Fog is a tight, pointedly external realist narrative whose larger ideas emerge from the book’s events. Calling Polar Fog an adventure story cheats its richness and history, but it’s too well-written, too exciting and too compelling a novel to be mere ethnography. The muscularity of Rytkheu’s prose and how deftly he paints the natural environment call to mind Jack London’s masterpiece, “To Build a Fire,” a thousand-some miles of distance notwithstanding. Rytkheu immerses his readers in the fantastical landscapes of the Arctic circle, and does so without breaking a sweat. A lesser writer would make more of the physical geography, but Rytkheu doesn’t need to. His elegant, unforced descriptive writing can whip us across leagues of tundra and thread the jagged icebergs studding hyperborean seas, but when the blizzards hit and the characters are trapped in their huts, we’re snowbound there with them under the whale-oil lamp, chewing walrus and hoping for respite.
Of course, Rytkheu didn’t write Polar Fog in English, but in Russian. Previously, his work could be found in English only in obscure tomes from Soviet propaganda publishing houses. Archipelago Books has done English readers yet another service by bringing Rytkheu to the New World in an edition worthy of him, smoothly translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse. Details in the book’s physical presentation contribute to its delectation, from its pleasing near-square shape to the soothing grey of the page numbers and footnotes, which leave a cleaner, more readable page.
In A Dream in Polar Fog, the white man in Chukotka is still a visiting curiosity, but for the reader, for John, and for the more worldly Chukcha there is no ignoring the inevitable collision between tribal tradition and imperial power, nor its inevitable outcome. It may seem an obvious comparison — native writers writing native peoples — but it’s hard not to think of Sherman Alexie’s work mapping the realities of Spokane life after genocide. When John’s friend Il’motch tells a humorous anecdote about being approached by two white men who attempted to trade for supplies with nothing more than soft yellow rocks, John immediately grasps the event’s ramifications: the rocks are gold, and its discovery on the Chukotka peninsula spells certain doom for the Chukcha way of life. As John worries about the future of the Chukcha, so too will the reader. The book ends as Russia’s October Revolution is underway. Communism spared Chukotka a gold rush in the American sense, but the formation of the Soviet Union sparked an enormous influx of non-natives drawn by easy availability of work in the state-run gold mines and associated construction. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Chukotka’s industrial economy spiraled, most non-natives fled, and those left behind sank into abject poverty, with the reindeer herds remaining monopolized by state-owned farms. The oil baron Roman Abramovich, Russia’s richest man, became Chukotka’s governor in 2001, and his company Sibneft began exploratory drilling throughout the peninsula. In 2003, Sibneft moved into the Anadyr Bay, where A Dream in Polar Fog is set. Ignoring locals’ protests, they chose a nature preserve as their first site, believing it to hold more than a billion tons of oil. Drilling begins next year.