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Continued: A frigid beauty

  • Article by: CHUCK LEDDY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 23, 2010 - 10:34 AM
Ian Frazier, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is a master of nonfiction narrative. As with his previous travel classics "Great Plains" and "On the Rez," Frazier's "Travels in Siberia" not only explores the geography of a remote, seemingly barren region, but also illuminates its dark history and resilient spirit. Frazier isn't just a chronicler -- he's a central character.

Growing up in Cleveland during the Cold War, Frazier viewed the Soviet Union as a mystery. Like most Americans, he knew Siberia as a metaphor for remoteness, and a place famous for brutal cold and the Stalinist gulag. As an adult, Frazier would fall in love with Siberia. What most impresses him, and will stun his readers, is Siberia's pure vastness. It covers eight time zones and, Frazier writes, "the continental United States plus most of Europe could fit inside it."

Frazier travels across Siberia in a van with two Russian guides, Sergei and Volodya. The van continually breaks down, but Frazier never loses his sense of wonder, despite multiplying obstacles. The mosquitoes are ravenous: "as we busied ourselves around the camp," writes Frazier, "mosquitoes came at us as if shot from a fire hose." In typical Frazier fashion, he not only relates his personal experiences under attack from mosquitoes, but describes in deep detail how Siberians manage their insect problem.

Frazier visits villages and cities, describing the landscapes and then going back in time to explore Siberia's long history. Interspersed with lucid writing about the ugliness and beauty of Siberia, we get long discourses about Genghis Khan and the Mongols, as well as the region's history as a prison for political exiles, from czarist times to Stalin's. Frazier's prose is gripping throughout. Here's how he explains the uniqueness of Russian colors: "Russia occupies its own universe, chromatically." He describes a car of "a particularly Russian version of green. I guess it was apple green, but to call it that is to reimagine the apple. It was a bright, bilious, chemical-spill version of apple green."

Siberia possesses abundant natural resources, including fur, gold, coal and natural gas. Frazier sees how the landscape has been pockmarked by extraction and collected waste: "We passed a beach that was all trash, then miles of mysterious seaside slag heaps lining the road." As for the gulag, Frazier visits a shuttered prison camp, where he's struck by "the place's overwhelming aura of absence. The deserted prison camp just sat there -- unexcused, un-torn down, unexplained. During its years of operation, it had been a secret, and in some sense it still was." After reading Frazier's passionate travelogue and history of Siberia, you'll never again view the region as a big, empty space on a map. Frazier brings Siberia into vivid, monochromatic focus.

Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.

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  • Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

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  • TRAVELS IN SIBERIA

    By: Ian Frazier.

    Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 529 pages, $30.

    Review: A nonfiction master brings a cold, remote region to life. Ian Frazier's vivid travelogue and history of Siberia explores Genghis Khan, the Stalinist gulag and the world's most aggressive mosquitoes.

    Event: Talk of the Stacks, 7 p.m. Oct. 26, Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

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