Holly Morrow's Reviews > Travels in Siberia

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
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's review
Jun 17, 2012

Anyone who has traveled on a modest budget through epic landscapes knows that human beings can only sustain a sense of awe and wonder for so long, before more mundane concerns creep in – the driver’s smoking, your companion’s regrettable choice in music, your desire for a snack or pee break. This makes one feel unpoetic and small-minded, so travel writers generally leave it out. It is part of the charm of Ian Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia” that that takes up about a third (i.e. a realistic and accurate) part of his story of his journey across the remote hinterlands of Russia. The book is his recounting of a trip (actually several trips) across Siberia where nothing much of consequence happens. I think its safe to say that no one will be optioning the rights to this book to make it into a movie. He doesn’t have a goal for this voyage, other than an interest in Siberia’s role in Russia’s history and a morbid fascination with the gulag. Frazier describes himself as “sick with Russia-love,” a country he is totally enthralled with, at the same time that he recognizes all its craziness and general state of disrepair. It took me a while to get into his book – Frazier’s writing is meandering and understated, but it occasionally rewards you with a beautiful, and very funny, passage, that is all the more enjoyable for not being overly polished and thought-over (or frequent). The book is at times strangely constructed – he will, for example, recount his discussion with a scientist at one of the deep-Siberian Russian Academy of Sciences by saying – “and then Sergei said:” and quote him directly for two and a half pages. And then end of chapter. No commentary, no summing up of why Frazier found this encounter particularly interesting, touching, indicative of Russian character, or otherwise noteworthy. And there is no minor Siberian historical figure too arcane to be worthy of several paragraphs’ discussion. The book shifts between the decidedly non-epic day-to-day trials of a long car trip in Siberia (mosquitoes, vehicular difficulties, etc), and researched digressions about Siberia – mostly a place where people have been sent for misbehavior (as differently defined in tsarist and Communist times) but occasionally the site of heroic (and stoic) feats of nation-building. I found I had to settle in to Frazier's style and tamp down my impatience, and then I really enjoyed it.

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