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"Slip inside a dream wrapped in 'Polar Fog':" a review of A Dream in Polar Fog from Arthur Salm in The Union Tribune

Some ineffable quality — call it art — in Yuri Rytkheu’s prose and Ilona Yazhbin Charvasse’s translation transforms his hypnotic, shimmering new novel into exactly what its title promises: “A Dream in Polar Fog” (Archipelago Books, 337 pages, $24).

Set in a Chukchi community — think Eskimos, though they’re not, quite — in the Russian far north in the years before and during the First World War, “A Dream in Polar Fog” appears on the surface to be a familiar fish-, or more appropriately, seal-or walrus-out-of-water story. John MacLennon, a young Canadian sailor, is grievously injured in an explosion during his ship’s visit to a Chukchi village. The ship having become icebound, three Chukchi men are hired to transport him by dogsled to a hospital in a (relatively) distant Russian town.

Undramatically but decisively, the weather intervenes, and John, minus the better part of both his hands, is stranded. Taken in by the primitive Chukchi, he wills himself to dissolve into their culture, forsaking Western ways and, eventually, Western thought altogether.

Well. The going-native trope can be wearying and hackneyed; often as not it devolves into a simplistic tale in which the outsider from the more technologically advanced culture comes to see the wickedness of his people’s ways through appreciation of the simplicity of life with his adopted tribe: They’re closer to nature (prettier sunsets), more honest (equitable distribution of meager goods), more alive (better sex).

Rytkheu, himself born into a Chukotka village, neither glamorizes the Chukchi’s harsh life nor (overly) demonizes the encroaching whites. True, he touches a lot of the apparently requisite bases: John receives guidance from a wise elder (“Little Big Man”); learns the natives’ language, has adventures and falls in love (“Shogun”); even comes to resemble the natives (“Kim,” with — as always with Kipling — reservations).

But all this, however interesting, seems beside the point, for “A Dream in Polar Fog” — and this is especially dicey for works in translation — thrums in the lower, more visceral range of language itself:

The snow crunched loudly underfoot, and this single sound within the frosty silence spread far around, filling the white space with nasty creaking. It followed the hunter the entire way. And the way was long, through tall ice hummocks, through conglomerations of broken ice. It had been a long time since they had used harness teams in Enmyn: The half-starved dogs had gone wild, having to fend for themselves, and wouldn’t allow themselves to be caught.

Frost bound the polynyas. Not sooner did a melthole appear, than it was drawn over with new, translucent ice.

As John melds with the Chukchi, the narrative becomes almost hallucinatory, even as great events transpire: a tragic accidental killing, a seal hunt, the discovery of a beached whale, feast, famine, an ominous white trader threatening their stability, Bolsheviks rumbling in the distance. One emerges from the novel and its sudden, jarring, most unusual but spot-on ending dazed, dazzled, snow-blind. The book remains in memory as more of state of consciousness experienced than a tale told. A dream in polar fog.

A note on the publisher: Archipelago Books’ specialty is quality works in translation, which they offer in beautifully designed, reasonably priced hardcover editions.

One thought on “"Slip inside a dream wrapped in 'Polar Fog':" a review of A Dream in Polar Fog from Arthur Salm in The Union Tribune

  1. Reading the book was a truly moving experience. It does reach out to the core, with its simplicity. One of the few books which stays with you even after you have read it.

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