Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson
In 2010, French travel writer Sylvain Tesson spent
six months in a Siberian cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, on the tip of North Cedar Cape. Seventy-five miles from the nearest village, no neighbours, no access roads ... Wintertime temperatures in the minus twenties Fahrenheit; the summer brought bears out into the open.
He calls it “paradise” and himself a “hermit”. A chacun son goût—but the charmed result is Consolations of the Forest, an extraordinary book and winner of the 2011 Prix Médicis for non-fiction. It is both an entrancing collage of meditation and musings as well as a clear-eyed and evocative introduction to a part of Asia—for Siberia is Asian as well as Russian—that is almost uniquely uninhabited, where few live, fewer visit and is rarely written about.
Consolations is structured as a journal, with daily entries from February through July. These cover what Tesson does—chops wood, fishes, ice skates (to Maria Callas), hikes up above the tree line, watches raindrops and sunbeams, reads, drinks a great deal of vodka (alone and in groups), visits and receives neighbors (which live hours away)—but what he does isn’t nearly as important as what he thinks about: solitude, the meaning of life (“reading Chinese verses while sipping vodka”), the beauty of the taiga, the booming of the ice in the lake as a manifestation of the “metaphysics of music”, winter slowly turning into spring (which doesn’t arrive until June).
Tesson seems to have found an excellent and empathetic translator in Linda Coverdale (although one wishes the measurements had been left metric so as to avoid, for example, elevations in fractions and multiples of 3300 feet). The result is a book packed with simile and metaphor:
The forest this morning is a buried army, of which nothing shows but its bayonets.
Suddenly, gusts shake the cedars and snow falls. The landscape is striped with grey gossamer.
Each page will have a passage or several like this: mist is “cottony”, char are “quicksilver” and “electric with fury”, “shadows descend... nibbling at the white plain”. Tesson switches styles like the rest of us change shirts. He’ll segue from descriptions of poetic calm or intensity to raw transcriptions of (somewhat drunken) dialogue and laundry lists of things and thoughts to ruminations on literature, philosophy and politics. He is also a master of the intricate, extended metaphor:
The ice cracks. Sheets compressed by movement of the mantle explode; fault lines streak across the quicksilver plain. Spewing crystalline chaos. Blue blood flows from wounded glass.
The cabin smokes in its grove of cedars. Snow has meringued the roof, and the beams are the colour of gingerbread. I’m hungry.
The twist at the end of the last paragraph is typical: Tesson’s existence is divided between the ethereal and corporeal.
He can also be biting. The introductory paragraph about buying supplies sets the tone:
The Heinz company sells around fifteen kinds of tomato sauce. The supermarket in Irkutsk stocks them all and I don’t which to choose... Fifteen kinds of ketchup. That’s the sort of thing that made me want to withdraw from the world.
Supercilious, yes. But Tesson is French, gloriously so, and one must therefore make allowances. He visits some “neighbors” (a relative term under the circumstances) some nine miles away and:
This morning Irina proudly shows me her library. In old editions from the Soviet era, she has works by Stendahl, Walter Scott, Pushkin. The most recent book is The Da Vinci Code. A slight downswing in civilization.
Books, Tesson emphasizes, are important. He may have been playing the hermit, but he hasn’t take a vow of total abstinence. In addition to copious supplies of vodka, pasta, tomato sauce and tabasco, he brought some seventy books with him. These range from Lady Chatterley's Lover, In Cold Blood and Out of Africa to Kierkegard, ninth-century poet Du Mu, Casanova and Lucretius, plus of course the presumably obligatory Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Camus and Chretien de Troyes. Not a Dan Brown among them—but if there had been, we might not have had:
This evening, I’m learning the funeral oration of Tao Yuanming, who died in 427: ‘Dignified in my humble hut, at my ease I drink wine and compose poems, attuned to the course of things, conscious of my destiny, now free, therefore, from all mental reservations ...’ I go to bed thinking there’s no point in keeping a journal when others can sum their lives in thirty-one words!
Tesson’s literary gymnastics and personal eccentricities aside, Consolations of the Forest is also a paean to the vastness of Siberia and a way of life that, surely against the odds, still survives. It is a page-turner but one in the which the words themselves pull us from page to page until, like Tesson, we come to the end and must finally return to a more quotidian existence.