White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia isn’t exactly the travelogue I expected from reading the back blurb. It’s about a Polish journalist, Jacek Hugo-Bader, who travels through Siberia in a truck in the middle of winter, but that aspect of the trip only appears in the first and last chapters of the book. The rest is arranged more topically about the people he interviews in these Siberian communities.
Once the realization that this wasn’t going to be a wacky journey tale set in, I quite enjoyed the book. Hugo-Bader talks to AIDS patients, hip-hop wannabes, shamans, religious communities and alcoholics. His european perspective on the Siberian aboriginal people gives those sections quite a different tone from the way you’d write about them in North America. Not better, but it was different enough to make me notice and try to analyze why it felt so foreign. Would it have felt more natural if I was a white Canadian forty years ago? Maybe, but maybe that’s just me thinking these Eastern Europeans are a bunch of assholes.
Anyway, problematic aboriginal discussions aside, I liked the book for its alternative perspective on the parts of Russia that don’t make the news. I’ll talk to my Russologist friends about how accurate this Polish journalist was, but for a non-expert it was an interesting read.
Once, by Morris Gleitzman, is a YA holocaust story with a naive young narrator who’s good at telling stories. The story starts with Felix in an orphanage and he’s trying to cheer up the other orphans by telling them stories about his bookselling parents. The thing is that he’s a Jewish kid sent to a Catholic orphanage to hide. He’s convinced his parents are out on a bookselling adventure and are sending him messages.
Then the Nazis show up and he escapes. He finds a burning house and saves a little girl and then they’re marched off to a ghetto in the city. More stuff happens and Felix loses faith in the power of stories, even while he helps an underground dentist.
It’s really hard not to compare this with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and it comes out ahead in pretty much every way. Felix is naive and believes some things we know are untrue (and he prays to God Jesus Mary and Adolf Hitler all in one breath), but he’s also clever. There are many things Felix doesn’t understand but you don’t get ticked off at him for it. You can see him trying to keep just ahead of the situation, and wonder at the doublethink that’s helping him survive. The language feels much less like an Englishman approximating what German-speakers might say. The whole book felt much more real, so if you liked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas you should really give Once a look.
I’ve had The Other sitting on my shelf for a couple of months and just got to it. It’s a book of philosophical essays by Ryszard Kapuscinski about how people deal with people who are not like them. It’s not a rigorous philosophical treatise, but the thoughts of a journalist who’s spent most of his life off travelling the world and recounting tales of other lands (most notably in Africa and South America, which were places the censors back in Iron Curtain Poland wouldn’t censor too much about).
Reading this book made me want to go places again, to travel, but not as a tourist. To go with a mission, like anthropologists do, like a real journalist, going off to find out about people and what life is like in faraway places. Every time I go to China, I realize how hard that is.
One thing he talks about in regards to the dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world which used to be dominated by it, is how that dichotomy was created in part because Europe’s first ambassadors to the rest of the world weren’t noble wise people. They were scummy ruffians who’d set sail because they didn’t have good lives back in Europe. They were misfits in an unromantic way, antisocial and greedy and were ready to take anything they could get from the people/creatures they encountered.
One of the most important things in this book, or at least a thing that resonated most strongly with me, was the idea of the self needing an Other to truly define it. You don’t know what you are until you are exposed to something else, the ways other people organize their lives. This kind of Other requires seeing these people in different places with different histories as still being human, so it’s actually historically quite a recent phenomenon. And one helped along by anthropologists.
It was a short book but very good. I’d probably read it before reading Travels With Herodotus if I hadn’t read any Kapuscinski before.
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is about Daniel Mendelsohn and his quest to find out about his great uncle’s family who were killed by the Nazis. In the course of the book he talks about talking to old Jewish people in New York and Florida and Australia and Bolekhov and Israel and Sweden. It’s a story that was about putting a human face on these people who died and on the people who didn’t.
I have to say I didn’t really love the book. My friend who gave it to me did love it. She’s a historian though, and this digging into all of these mundane bits of memory is the kind of thing she likes. I could completely see why she liked the book and its searching and its circular storytellingness, but I couldn’t get into it. I think the main thing that put me off was the tone through the whole thing that only people who really really care about history are good people. And while I think history is interesting and you can’t forget about it, I’d rather not spend my days wallowing in it. Here’s a quote:
When I was growing up, I would look at my father’s father, and then look at my mother’s father, and the contrast between them was responsible for forming, in my childish mind, a kind of list. In one column there was this: Jaegers, Jewishness, Europe, languages, stories. In the other there was this: Mendelsohns, atheists, America, English, silence. I would compare and contrast these columns, when I was much younger, and even then I would wonder what kind of present you could possibly have without knowing the stories of your past.
Maybe it’s just me being defensive, but I’m so much more on the silent English atheists side of that dichotomy (in terms of my Mennonite heritage) and his condescension towards us just grated. And it grated through the whole book. Plus the writing was so melodramatic it all just turned me off.
Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus was about one of my favourite parts of life: reading books in foreign places. When Kapuscinski was a young Polish journalist in the 1950s he expressed a desire to go abroad “perhaps to Czechoslovakia.” He was sent to India, with a parting gift of Herodtus’ Histories. So the book is about Herodotus as a role model for the traveller, and about the way it shaped Kapuscinski in his travels. He tells awesome stories about going to China during Mao’s 100 Flowers Campaign and being shut up in his room, and of being robbed in Cairo by a man he saw every day before and after the robbery. He’s talking about going to Congo and all through it he’s got his Herodotus.
A lot of the book is Kapuscinski retelling stories from the Histories and wondering about the tales. He takes a very open, anti-cynical approach to these 2500 year old stories. When Herodotus says he heard that the people up the Nile eat with their feet he takes it as a wondrous kind of thing. Not that Kapuscinski believes that’s what Africans did back in the day, but that he takes the story Herodotus presents seriously, as kind of a marvel of reporting (even if it is second or third hand).
It was a good combination of tales from different times. When I go to China in July, I’m going to bring some Herodotus with me.