Book review: Back to Siberia

Title: “Terug naar Siberië” (Dutch title; translation: “Back to Siberia”)
Author: Martin Heylen
Year: 2008
Publisher: T.T.T.I. BVBA / © Woestijnvis & Martin Heylen
Pages: +/- 350, occasionally decorated with pictures

Why on earth would I choose a relatively obscure book like “Back to Siberia” as the subject of my first book review on Bladsite? Well, because a guy has to practice before running onto the pitch; “War & Peace” seems a little on the heavy side to start off with, don’t you agree?

It’d be unfair to say that’s the only reason, though. I’m going to try and keep book reviews on this site down to a few short paragraphs. Sure, there’ll be more elaborate ones every so often; but, given my haunting memories of overdoing reviews in the past, this is probably a good way of becoming a more to-the-point kind of writer. Or something to that effect.

Secondly, a legible and light-of-tone affair like “Back to Siberia” doesn’t need my hyperboles and delusions of grandeur to describe its contents, or to fill in the blanks (if any) in terms of writing style. The author certainly does have a style to call his own – and luckily, “modesty” is one of his more recognizable virtues. A lot of the story-telling is done through dialogues or unspoken contemplations on behalf of the story-teller.

A story-teller who, much like myself, had been gripped by the unbelievable vastness of Russia at a young age, yet also a man trapped within his own surroundings for five decades. Reporting for several magazines throughout the years, he finally ended up doing a series of winter portraits on Siberians that made its way into the popular t.v.-show “Man bijt Hond” (“Man bites Dog”). Some of his encounters with Siberians in their isolated habitat made him personally long back for more; and, as such, he went back to that huge slap of land with its terrifying temperature swings – and actually managed to track down most of the original subjects of his portraits, this time during the summer season.

And this is basically the primary reason I wanted to write a little bit about “Back to Siberia” in the first place: I really like the subject. Ever since I’ve started reading books intensively a year or so ago, Russia has always taken up a large part of the book collection. Combined with a present-day yet almost alien planet-like setting, “BtS” seemed worthy of spilling some virtual ink on. So here goes nothing, I guess.

The book reads like a mixture of a travel diary, social commentary and anecdotes: Sometimes, a bit of generic history is also intertwined with the regular portrait-style story arch. All of these portraits breathe emotion, but a few really manage to stand out and make you want to go there yourself. The Jewish couple living near Birobidzan, almost being overcome by poverty but remarkably generous – both during winter time and summer time. A lonely woman from Omsk, shallow on the outside but fallen in love with poetry, forever destined to only hear herself dictate Pushkin and Chekhov. Construction workers in Yakutsk, gravediggers in Neryungri – people working at temperatures of up to minus 50 degrees Celcius, the stuff you only expect to see in comic books. In real life, it’s less funny, yet through Heylen’s witty and respectful way of writing dialogues, it becomes believable. And obviously, there’s a bit of a comic book author within the heart of every Belgian citizen – so there’s no shortage of funny bits.

Luckily enough, there’s plenty of room for personal reflection too. Heylen finds himself at fault when judging a fur-skinning “factory” through his Western eyes. The portrait of a proud mother of four, working her way through completely miserable circumstances is the most impressive one of all – because here, we see the true barrier between “us” and “them”, smelling the disgusting smells and hearing caged animals waiting to be beaten to death. It’s as if we’re being taken back in time for a few centuries, unable to process the rough life many Siberians have to face everyday. Even though Heylen’s own mother worked for a fur-processing company herself, there’s no way for to him to connect with the mother-of-four he’s supposed to interview. In the end, the portrait falls to pieces, adding a much-needed layer of authenticity to an otherwise smooth set of stories.

A few chapters act as throw-away anecdotes more than anything else, sometimes hardly scratching the impenetrable surface found all across Siberia. Just as you begin to wonder “What the point in all of this is”, you’re being sucked in again by, say, the mentioning of an exiled neurosurgeon from Belo-Russia currently re-coating a statue of Lenin in some far-off town we’ve never heard of. Siberia is a fascinating place with fascinating people in it.

The Siberians being interviewed aren’t the only ones being spotlighted, though: there’s room for Heylen’s crew to fit in as well. The author mostly travels by car, operated by his trusty driver Jevgeni from Yekaterinburg – who acts as comic relief, quipping jokes about pretty much every minority Siberia has to offer. Because of this, an otherwise rather generic joke about “actual” Russians becomes memorable, and Jevgeni more loveable; easier to comprehend, perhaps. He’s definitely the most prolific one of all the crew, further complemented by the young and feisty interpreter Dasja, cameraman Jef and soundguy slash inspirator Steve.

On the map, I mark a small village – right where the main road ends.
“That’s where we’re heading,” I tell Jevgeni. He frowns his eyebrows.
“Who told you there’s a road there?”
“The map, the roadbook.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

Dasja, a 22-year old, non-certified interpreter yet bona fide Russian pulls a few punches – saving the helpless Belgians from despair and even violence throughout the journey; other than that, we hardly get to know her. The same can be said for Jef, Steve and even Heylen himself. Again, being overcome with modesty wandering through the unforgiving landscape of Siberia, the author wisely chose to focus on the stuff us “Westerners” would find most interesting. He suffices in occasionally mentioning the brutal circumstances in which his sound&vision crew have to work under; one can almost feel one’s fingertips freeze to pieces, as they try to shoot some footage atop a mining hill in the agonizing cold.

Back to Siberia” was never meant to be a zenith of wisdom; it’s playful and uplifting (never mind the moralizing passages every here and there), allowing itself to be accompanied by beautiful, one-page colour photographs as an introduction to each chapter. The half-paged ones are okay, if mostly somewhat stilted in nature; and then there’s the “film strips” of several smaller pictures, often a bit too generic or fuzzy to leave much of an impression. I didn’t quite enjoy the last chapter, “The nouveau riches” (of Vladivostok), as much as e.g. the quick-paced epilogue. A few rough preparation guides for typical Siberian dishes also form welcome addition to the book, although my “pelmeni” (ravioli, more or less) didn’t come out spectacularly great. Can I blame the book for this? Please?

Never mind such nitpickings, though. “Back to Siberia” is all about the journey. At the end of this trip to Vladivostok, the author feels relieved for a moment, then finds himself looking for more stories. He knows Siberia has much left to offer; that’s why he went back, after all. To follow-up on his initial experiences; but also to be amazed by new ones. His journey serves as a metaphor for life still being full of surprises, if one’s willing to take risks that most of us find “unacceptable” or “unnecessary” – yet risks Siberians (if there ever was such an ethnicity) regard as an every-day routine, silently knowing their isolation has made them stronger than most of us will ever become.

Heylen’s book just helped in letting us know, too.

Verdict: 7.5/10

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