Siberian author Yuri Rytkheu champions a native people in A Dream in Polar Fog
While he may be unfamiliar to American audiences, acclaimed Siberian author Yuri Rytkheu’s works are both popular bestsellers and award-winners throughout Europe and in Japan. Rytkheu was born in Uelen, a village in the Chukotka region of Siberia, and has extensive real-life experience from a region many people could not point to on a globe; he has hunted whales, sailed the Bering Sea and worked on scientific expeditions to the Arctic. In the course of a writing career that has spanned 10 novels and five decades, Rytkheu long ago emerged as the foremost literary voice for the area’s native Chukchi people, his works introducing a spectrum of readers to the history and mythology of one of the last truly desolate spaces on the map. He holds on to this distinction with A Dream in Polar Fog, which recently saw its first English-language publication. The translation was launched by Archipelago Books, a nonprofit publishing house committed to introducing a geographically and culturally diverse collection of writers who have been “overlooked” by commercial and university presses.
When asked if he viewed writing about the Chukchi as choice or obligation, Rytkheu once said, “Only God and inspiration dictate my topics.” He is, however, an uncompromising champion of the north’s native peoples, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Republic, when social programs for indigenous Siberians were cut back or totally abolished. He also has a long association with environmental issues and is a vocal critic of the devastation visited upon the Chukotka environment by Russia’s particularly ruthless methods of extracting natural resources. In the final analysis, Rytkheu’s fellow Chukchi appear to be in a position similar to that of any culture whose existence is based on a connection to the land – trapped somewhere between progress and tradition, facing choices that all bear some unforeseeable element of cost and loss.
A Dream in Polar Fog is, at its most basic level, an adventure story set along the rugged Arctic coastline. But Rytkheu’s novel is also about the impact of cultural collision, in this case between a band of traditional Chukchi and a white outsider. After a tragic shipboard accident, a seriously injured Canadian sailor named John MacLennan is left in the care of the Chukchi in the hopes that they can transport him to a Russian hospital. The native Siberians see their visitor as a strange but not unfathomable human being; MacLennan, on the other hand, views his saviors – and they do indeed save his life – as cannibal heathen, alien to what he considers normal behavior in every way. MacLennan will of course achieve a more generous point of view, in time, but it’s not an easy process for anyone involved.
Rytkheu’s novels have long been considered “ethnographic” for the amount of detail they provide about traditional Chukchi life, and while the author maintains that recreating that atmosphere was his greatest challenge, it’s something he handles quite deftly. Rytkheu’s narrative allows readers to develop insights into traditional Chukchi culture far more quickly than MacLennan, though the archetypal sailor’s prejudices and misprisions never seem too heavy-handedly didactic. The story is rich with seductive physical detail, and as we find ourselves immersed in arctic culture, an almost surreal relationship with land and weather, shamanistic rituals and even primitive surgical procedures begin to seem like part of everyday life rather than exotic episodes. The graceful translation by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse retains the native words for terms that probably don’t have very exact analogs in any other language – just what would you call a kind of yurt for sled dogs?