Yuri Rytkheu’s A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books) is a very readable novel that also usefully illuminates a corner of the world with which most readers must be entirely unfamiliar. It tells the story of a Canadian sailor who finds himself living with the Chukchi people of northeastern Siberia at about the time of the Russian revolution. Along the way we learn a great deal about the Chukchi way of life and are provided with several adventure-type setpieces that are quite dramatic and entertaining. Rytkheu’s prose has been rendered by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse into a clear and immediate English that no doubt reflects Rytkheu’s own functionally plain style. I would never think of the novel as a classic of Russian literature, but all in all I’m glad I read it.
Thus I find Neil Pollack’s review of the book notably overwrought, probably more indicative of Pollack’s notions about what fiction is for than of the place A Dream in Polar Fog might hold in the canon of world literature. “Yuri Rytkheu’s A Dream in Polar Fog is a reminder of a time when novels had adventure and mystery,” he writes, “before the ubiquity of video made everything on Earth seem familiar, yet also abstract and distant. Its themes are grand, elemental, and simple, comprehensible in the junior high school manner of discussing literature (Man v. Nature, Man v. Himself, and soon), but also tricky and subtle. This is the work of a writer in full command of the novelistic form. It recalls, in both substance and style, the best work of Jack London and Herman Melville, and it is a novel in the grandest sense of the word.”
Pollack doesn’t elaborate on what he means by “tricky and subtle” (or explain how this is compatible with his follow-up statement that Rytkeu “isn’t looking to impress us with his cleverness or with narrative trickery”), other than to repeat in his conclusion that the novel “is both elegant and exciting.” It is not necessarily a disparagment of A Dream in Polar Fog to say that its themes are indeed “comprehensible in the junior high school manner of discussing literature,” or to conclude that subtlety isn’t something a novel like this really needs. Pollack seems to be straining to defend it as also “artistic” at the same time he is elevating “adventure and mystery” to pride of place in our consideration of novels—these are what allow us to call a book like A Dream in Polar Fog “a novel in the grandest sense of the word.” He wants to split the difference between Jack London’s compelling if not particularly subtle tales of adventure and Melville’s more aesthetically intricate metaphysical reveries masquerading as adventure stories.
A Dream in Polar Fog is essentially an ethnographic novel. Whereas the anthropological “information” to be found in London’s fiction is generally secondary to the drama of his adventure plots, in A Dream in Polar Fog relaying this information is really the novel’s primary objective. In keeping with the strictures of socialist realism (under the authority of which this book was originally written and published), the story of John MacLennan’s induction into and embrace of Chukchi society is a vehicle for the portrayal of the Chukchi people as wise and indomitable (although I agree with Pollack that Rythkeu makes an attempt to portray individual Chukchi as motivated by the same human impulses as anyone else) and for providing readers with a detailed portrait of their ways and their way of life. It does succeed in this effort, but I can’t see that this warrants declaring that in so doing it “accomplishes everything a novel should.” It’s defining the form down in the extreme to describe it in terms acceptable even to the Union of Soviet Writers.
Again, I don’t mean to belittle Rytkheu’s book. Among the officially sanctioned fiction published during the Soviet era, A Dream in Polar Fog is probably less compromised than most by its fidelity to the principles upholding the “truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development.” It holds up as a work of literature despite the deformations imposed by the processes controlling its publication—albeit a work of a certain kind, a “simple” story of “simple” people told in a more or less documentary style. By sticking to the descriptive method of fiction-as-ethnography, Rytkheu preserves the integrity of his account of Chukchi culture, and the novel otherwise qualifies as a recognizable piece of adventure fiction. But Neil Pollack seems to think that this particular conception of what novels ought to do is really the definition of the “novelistic form.” Presumably, novels at their best are long on narrative, on ethnographic description, on “elemental” themes.
In my view, what this leaves out is the possibility that novels might aspire to be works of art rather than simply rousing narratives. Pollack almost implies that “a novel in the grandest sense of the word” necessarily avoids any artsy-fartsy “trickery,” even while he praises A Dream in Polar Fog for its elegance and its “maturity” of approach. I don’t know how many readers agree with Neil Pollack that narrative simplicty combined with anthropological detail makes for the “best” kind of novel, but surely such a view at the very least implies that aesthetic values are secondary in our consideration of fiction, that literature is most acceptable when it avoids being too, well, literary.