Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ian Frazier on his Decades-Long Exploration of Siberia on Land, in Literature and History

In his book “Travels in Siberia”(FSG, $28), the New Yorker writer Ian Frazier addresses his two-decade obsession with Siberia, digging into the frozen tundra of a land most famous for its penal colonies and isolation and coming up with a deft, witty book that is both a travelogue and history.

Frazier pulls the reader in with his five trips to Siberia and his vivid recounting of the brutal history of the territory, from the marauding Mongol horsemen who would slaughter whole cities to the Russian tsars, who set up huge penal colonies. Frazier follows the intrepid American explorers who traversed Siberia in the 19th century, often broken by their hardships. At the center of the book is Frazier’s picaresque travels with two Russian companions in a dying van through Siberia, drawing intricate portraits of the countryside and its people. Towards the end, Frazier visits the horror of an abandoned Stalinist prison camp, seeing the gulag system that worked millions of Russian prisoners to death.

Frazier, 59, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Montclair, New Jersey.

Q. In America, how do we use the term Siberia?

A. It is something that everybody has an idea of what it is, but it does not actually exist on a map. Siberia is a state of mind. In (a famous restaurant like) the Waverly Inn, it is easy to define where the tables in Siberia begin.

Q. When you first went to Russia in the early 1990s, you noticed a nationwide smell that seemed to be made of cucumbers, diesel fuel and sour milk. How did this smell affect you?

A. It is a very distinct smell and is unmistakable. Everything in Russia is made of cement--phone booths, fence posts and light bulbs. They drink a lot of tea, so there is that teabag smell. There are mulberries on the street and they get in your boots. It is kind of a dark smell.

Q. Why did you drive across Russia and Siberia in a rickety van over five weeks in 2001?

A. You can find dozens of books about people taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I knew I had to do something different to cross Siberia. To drive and to talk with people along the way, that was how I wrote my book “Great Plains.” I drove and camped in Siberia, but did not have a real program. Sergei and Volodya (his Russian companions) were resourceful at keeping the van alive.

Siberia was a huge subject. I was learning Russian. People would ask me all the time, “What happened, where is the Siberia book?” I’d read books in Russian and they would take me forever. I wanted to write a book that would last and would not be superficial. Siberian travel writing is its own genre. In writing the book, I was taking my bearings. I wanted to know where I was geographically, but also where I was in the literature.

Q. You wind up at the end of Siberia on September 11, 2001 and experience compassion in the strangest way. Could you describe the incident?

A. When I finally called my wife, it was still only 7p.m. on Sept. 11th. My wife couldn’t reach her brother, who worked across from the World Trade Center. Calls from our home in New Jersey weren’t going through. I called him by satellite phone and found him in Brooklyn. There were these salmon poachers sitting near our tent. They looked hostile because Russians never smile. I went in the tent to be alone. One of the poachers came up to Sergei and presented him with a big salmon, which is the Russian thing to do, to go through the bureaucracy. Sergei said, “They wanted you to have this fish.” I was moved to tears, but I was more touched when I found out later the salmon was illegal.

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in October 2010)

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