While I was away, the Journal published my review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. I’ve posted it below.
(Original link here.)
Travels in Siberia
Ian Frazier, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 529 pp; $34.50
At the centre of The New Yorker’s recent food issue was a piece on April Bloomfield, a British chef working in New York who made her name at the Spotted Pig, a restaurant the magazine dubbed the city’s first “gastropub.”
An originally English term for bistros with upscale takes on classic pub fare, gastropubs have been the new big thing for a few years now.
At the Spotted Pig, the signature dish is a hamburger, chargrilled and served with crumbled Roquefort. Other gastropub staples include gourmet grilled-cheese or shepherd’s pie and french fries.
What connects the recipes, at their best, is a commitment to execution over outward innovation. They aren’t simple, but they can be made to look that way.
The point is to impress with flavour, to be excellent within existing forms, not to dazzle with appearance or gilt for gilt’s sake.
There’s something of the gastropub in Travels in Siberia, the new work from Ian Frazier. Both travelogue and history, the book is a little like the perfect hamburger. There’s nothing outwardly flashy to it. No gimmicks. No colon in the title. No counterintuitive theme. It’s just a beautiful book, well written.
For me, at least, it was the best non-fiction book of 2010, a work of astonishing scope made to look simple by one of the true artists of the genre.
Beginning 10 years ago, Frazier took two long treks across Siberia, a land he describes as being without formal boundaries, one so physically vast it encompasses eight time zones and so psychologically imposing as to exist for many not as “the place itself but (as) a figure of speech,” a symbol of exile and emptiness.
Before, after and in-between the longer trips, Frazier dipped in and out of the country on a series of short hops. Sometimes with companions, other times on his own, he explored the crannies of Russia’s hinterlands. He tracked down gulags and museums and retraced, as best he could, the steps of other journeys.
Like Frazier’s 1989 opus, The Great Plains, Travels in Siberia is as much chronicle of chronicles as it is straight travelogue. Frazier seems to have read almost everything published on Siberia and he retells the history here with both remarkable depth and an eye for the absurd.
Through successive regimes, Siberia has remained an exile of last resort. Rebels, intellectuals and others unlucky enough to displease whichever autocrat then ruling Russia have found themselves shipped to gulags and labour camps in the far east for centuries.
Frazier recounts many of those stories here. And while he never shies from the horrors of life in exile -disease, starvation, sometimes torture -he doesn’t belabour the point either.
Frazier’s writing isn’t glib, but he also isn’t afraid of the darkly comic.
About the life of the 19th-century author Nicolai Chernyshevsky, an influential figure in pre-revolutionary Russia, he writes that it “illustrates the unfortunate fact that a writer can hope and strive and suffer, and in the end even give his life, for work that turns out to be not good.”
On the larger subject of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, he opines that “time spent in Siberia was an important highlight of their resumés, a proof of authenticity just as going to jail has been for certain rappers.”
In lesser hands, entire chapters on subjects such as Siberian exiles under the Romanovs may have bogged down. But written in Frazier’s distinctive voice, they coast.
His retelling of Russia under the Mongols is especially strong.
Frazier believes the Mongol period playing a profound role in shaping modern Russia. In his telling, the centuries of terror and oppression helped craft the central conundrum of Russia today, “namely, how it can be so great and so horrible simultaneously.
“I think one answer is that when other countries were in their beginnings . Russia was beset by Mongols,” he writes. “That is, Russia can be thought of as an abused country; one has to make allowances for her because she was badly mistreated in her childhood .”
Throughout the book, Frazier seems to write almost beneath the surface. When describing his own travels, his sentences flow unnoticed before popping up in sudden, small explosions of humour.
During a long train ride -described as a “hump that must be got over, a central knot to be worked through” -Frazier spies a woman “so large and rumpled she seemed to be part bed herself.”
Later he encounters young men trucking cars from Japan with haircuts that “stand up straight in a bristly Russian way.”
The book slows somewhat midway through Frazier’s second, winter, trek. Frazier himself seems tired of Russia by that point and his observations dwindle. So much of what made the first two-thirds of the book spark -the wit, the detail -fade. But this is a minor quibble. Travels in Siberia is thick -more than 500 pages with footnotes -and Frazier generally keeps the flow alive, not an unimpressive feat in a book that spans more than a thousand years and lacks a single, overarching narrative.
As a writer, Frazier observes and interprets but he rarely draws broad conclusions. When he builds to a larger point, it often seems to be at least half joke, like with the Mongols and modern Russia. So it can be hard to describe precisely what Travels in Siberia is about, or what makes it so good.
It’s a bit like telling someone why one hamburger is better than another. Like April Bloomfield, Frazier isn’t so much an innovator as he is a master of execution. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about his method, but his product is nonetheless peerless.
Frazier takes the travel writing form to levels few others can. It even feels a bit limiting to call this a travel book; it’s like calling the Spotted Pig a diner. There’s so much depth to the book, and such a unique voice. More than 10 years in the writing, it seems destined to be a classic, a book to be read and reread over and over again.