Posts Tagged ‘Travels in Siberia’

Jacek Hugo-Bader: White Fever

December 30, 2014

51+iMiGPN8L._AA160_White Fever is the nickname Russians give to the DTs that alcholics suffer from; there’s a ridiculous amount of that in this book…

The blurb on the cover compares Hugo-Bader to Ryszard Kapuscinski, an inevitable comparison, I suppose, but they are different: Bader is much more impressionistic, it seems to me, and rather less contextual. He writes well, it’s translated well and easy to read, though the subject-matter is grim and challenging.

It’s a deceptive book: I thought I was getting a travelogue through Siberia, but it’s not an A-Z account of a journey. Instead there are thematic chapters, impressions of people and places encountered on his journey.

I’ve read a lot about Siberia, and it remains vast and incomprehensible. The Soviet Union becomes an ever weirder place as time passes since its disappearance, leaving so many horrors behind it. Bader visits the area where Soviet nuclear testing took place and his accounts of the cavalier attitudes at the time, and the horrendous effects, are truly shocking. The effects on indigenous peoples of alcohol are appalling; having grown up on non-carb diets, they are unable to process alcohol and it wreaks havoc. Average consumption of alcohol in Russia is seventeen litres of pure alcohol equivalent per person per year.

Crime, corruption and violence are rife in lawless areas of the Far East: it resembles the US Wild West of the nineteenth century, and is certainly far worse than in the days of the Soviet Union. There are all sorts of shamans and weird religious cults as people strive to make some sense of their wrecked lives; here I was reminded of some of the religious fundamentalism of the US.

So then I found myself thinking about huge continental nations like the US and Russia that are almost empires in themselves, and wondering whether the inhabitants do actually see life and live it differently, if that makes sense. Certainly both places appear very different from the melting-pot of relatively small nations that make up Europe and that I’m familiar with, though we are just as capable of internecine horrors, as our twentieth-century history testifies… I have always been fascinated with the Soviet Union, which to me did begin as an attempt to create a different and better kind of society, though it was very quickly perverted; certainly the glee of the West at its collapse and our rush to help destroy all traces of it, is partly responsible for what is going on in Russia now.

It’s a fascinating and horrifying read; I’m astonished at the risks he took. The practicalities of attempting to drive in Siberia would put any sane person off. He observes closely and intelligently, refraining from judgement: allowing people to speak for themselves, they also judge themselves.

Ian Frazier: Great Plains

June 30, 2014

9781862078703I got his Travels in Siberia for Christmas the other year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so when I came across Great Plains in a second-hand bookshop in Kent on a recent holiday, I snapped it up.

He travelled about 25000 miles over several years through the Great Plains area of the western USA, and the book is a composite of his travels and impressions: to someone who has never been there, he conveys a wonderful sense of the place and the people. Having said that, I think I’d have preferred a more structured travelogue, and with better maps. The account of his travels and discoveries is very well annotated; he knows lots about Native American tribes, their history and famous characters, which I found fascinating, as I also did his knowledge of the nuclear missile silos which dot the landscape. It comes across as a vast and relatively empty area, sometimes spectacularly beautiful, at other times almost totally featureless, an idea which it’s very difficult for a European to get his mind around.

I found that his style and tone at times echoed both Garrison Keillor and Bill Bryson: perhaps this was because they are all three Americans, and write about similar places in their homeland.

This book confirmed my enjoyment of Frazier as a contemporary travel writer; I shall be on the lookout for more.

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