“Ilget: The Three Names of a Life” by Alexander Grigorenko

Ilget: The Three Names of a Life, Alexander Grigorenko, Christopher Culver (trans) (Glagoslav, March 2024) Ilget: The Three Names of a Life, Alexander Grigorenko, Christopher Culver (trans) (Glagoslav, March 2024)

Alexander Grigorenko’s previous book Mebet, set among the Nenets people of the Siberian taiga, was such an unique literary experience that one could be forgiven for opening Ilget, the next book in the trilogy (a rather loose trilogy, it would appear), with some trepidation, anxious that it repeat or at least not surprise in same measure. But if anything, Ilget is better; although-steeped in mythology and the supernatural, as the people it writes about were and are, it feels more rooted in reality and rather than being fully immersed in magic-realism, only dips its toes in it.

The eponymous Ilget was born along the banks of the Yenisei, that great Siberian river. A foundling, driven by fate to find his own life, he is taken in by Yabto and his wife and, along with his brother, raised along the couple’s own two sons.

 

The book opens with Yabto and his sons tracking a fugitive who has escaped from the encampment along with Yabto’s boat and iron armor. The fugitive is the now-grown foundling; he had been given the name Wenga (“Dog’s Ear”) for the acuity of his hearing. He is small, and often referred to as “the runt” and protected by his older brother Lar. The sons by birth had come to realize that the other two were not in fact their brothers and had fomented such tension as to cause Lar to rebel and be sent away. Wenga had left to find him.

Thus starts a lifetime of travels, travails, hunts and fights across the taiga. There are marriages, children, murders, wars, starvation, happiness, fear, pride and exaltation. Fate is omnipresent if not dominant. The story is filled with reindeer, snow, wolves, arrows, fish, sleds, skis, ubiquitous chum dwellings and multiple peoples, languages and traditions.

But mostly the book is about stories, of individuals, families, peoples; small stories and big ones; interlocking stories; stories which seemingly finish only to start up again; even Ilget’s story comes and goes and drops in and out of first person. Stories of men predominate, but Grigorenko’s female characters are deep and sensitively portrayed.

Although trite, it is irresistible to compare the book to the river at its heart: sometimes eddying, joined by other stories along the way, sometimes frozen over, a source of nourishment, but ever-flowing, unstoppable.

 

Although this is Ilget’s story, it is Yabto’s that may appear familiar. His gathering of the disaffected into an army of disparate people has echoes of the story of Temüjin, later Chinggis Khan.This might be thought fanciful except that some four-fifths of the way through the book, when the story might have ended:

 

I had already seen for myself how life is ordained for a person from the very beginning. Who had ordained it this way? I do not know… But I think that it was the one they call the Sleeping God, who dwells in the utmost heaven. He created this beautiful world and then, feeling assured, he went to sleep. It had probably happened exactly that way, I thought… Men said that he no longer remembers that the earth and human beings exist. But as I looked at the workings of fate, I realized that his wisdom had remained behind on the earth and spread across the great Tree of the Yenisei on which the world stood, inhabited by people in their different tribes and by trees, animals, and spirits.
      I knew whom to thank for everything that had happened: the Yenisei became my god. I would go up there alone to see its majesty, and I prayed to it with the words that my heart suggested…

 

…  there is a date in a story that had to that point been timeless, or even outside time: “AD 1218”. The Mongols arrive and tear Ilget’s world asunder. At this point, Ilget’s story intersects—not perhaps entirely fortuitously in my view, but other readers may differ—with documented history.

Grigorenko has created an exotic yet believable world. It would take someone with more knowledge of the ethnography than me to know how closely it hews to the mythologies and beliefs of the peoples he writes about; by setting it 800 years in the past, Grigorenko perhaps can distance himself from the need for strict accuracy. But there are voices here, ones we rarely if ever hear (all in a fluent and unaffected translation by Christopher Culver); of Grigorenko’s sincerity and respect for his subjects, there seems little room for doubt:

 

The Tree of the Yenisei is not a lie. It led me to my own river with remarkable persistence and patience, because my little river flows across the whole world. Though I see steppe, mountains, desert, other lakes and rivers, I know that I am really wandering along its banks.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.