Works of literature that feature the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian taiga are extremely rare; the only ones that immediately come to mind are The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian, about Evenki along the Heilongjiang-Russian border, and the (true) story of Dersu Uzala, a Nanai introduced to the world in Vladimir K Arsenyev’s now century-old Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains.
So if, as I wrote about The Last Quarter of the Moon,
of the many reasons to read fiction, one of the best, surely, is that it can take us places we have never been, and perhaps can never go…
the fact that Alexander Grigorenko’s Mebet is set among the Nenets of northern Siberia would be enough reason to read it, even if it weren’t entrancing in the most literal sense of the term. Once one enters this world of forest, snow, reindeer, bear, sable and fish, of furs, sleds, bows, spears, shamans, deer-skin chums and dug-out coffins left to rest in the branches of trees, it is hard to leave.
As a novel, however, Mebet is, however, extremely hard to categorize. It is set at a time before the arrival of Europeans; there is only one mention of anything remotely connected to a wider outside world—“an enormous boat covered in iron and sailing under sails just as huge”—but even that might have been a vision. Perhaps the story is set outside time itself, for it takes the form and style of a traditional fable; or, as goes the preface:
The taiga has no history. It does have a memory, however, which persists in half-fantastical legends and tales… The peoples of this ocean of green live in such a way that yesterday and events of a century ago can stand side by side.
Mebet, the eponymous protagonist if not quite hero of the work, goes by the moniker “The God’s Favorite”, invincible, impervious, unflappable, living with his small family apart from the clans that form the basis of Nenets society and disdaining convention without consequence or retribution.
No one could best him in games, in fighting, in racing, in the hunt, or in battle. At the bear feast, he could leap over a hundred sleds, and when he was invited to participate in feats of strength, none were willing to vie with him. Never was anyone able to defeat Mebet, whose very name meant “The Strong One.”
He is an Arctic Hercules or maybe Odysseus: chosen, but flawed. These qualities are apparently not however inheritable, or at least not inherited, wherein lies the dilemma that leads to the book’s second half, a supernatural epic where Mebet, finally granted a full range of human emotion and thus bold vulnerable and thereby more heroic, must overcome a series of trials to return home. In Grigorenko’s simple, straightforward prose and clipped, and at times grandiose and formal, dialogue, Mebet resembles pre-War retellings of great European tales from Roland to Sigurd.
Mebet, the first of a trilogy, has in Russia been called a “Nenets Lord of the Rings”, but unlike Tolkein’s masterwork, Grigorenko’s has at least some direct link to ethnographic reality. How much? The biographical material on the author, a journalist who has spent most of life in Siberia, is distinctly limited. Simple online fact-checking will confirm some of the details in the story, such as the bear feasts or the negotiations regarding place and conditions that precede a battle. But while practice can be gleaned from studies and observation, the English-language reader has little way of knowing how much of Mebet is drawn from, and respectful of, actual Nenets fable and myth and how much might just be a Disneyfied ethnographic pastiche. It is to Grigorenko’s literary credit that it at least reads true.
It’s hardly going out on a limb to predict that you’re unlikely to read another book like this all year, or for several years, or at least not until Glagoslav releases the other two volumes of the trilogy, if they do. Here’s hoping: the third novel won the prestigious Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award in 2016.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.