Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Animal doubles

I have just finished reading a most extraordinary book, Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. Hmmm, if I had realized it would be quite such a spectacular read, I would have gotten to it sooner, that is poor book hygiene on my part...

(I am not sure the title really does the book justice. The book itself has a truly novelistic richness, and one of its central interests is the interaction between the nomadic reindeer herders Vitebsky's writing about and the different incarnations of Soviet colonialism in transition during the aftermath of the empire's breakup. Utterly fascinating. Would make an interesting pair with Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl...)

I will turn to the list format in an attempt to conjure up this book's delights, which lie in language as well as in what's said. Here are some passages that especially struck me:
A reindeer sees patterns rather than detail. A man can make a reindeer run towards his companion lying in wait by putting up his parka hood so that the edging of fine fur resembles the bristling shoulder hairs of a wolf with its head down ready to attack. But if two hunters imitate the silhouette of a reindeer, one bending down like a pantomime horse and the other lifting his bow or gun as antlers, it will approach them to investigate.

Fences of larch poles seemed spindly and incongruous on this massive, jagged landscape. But even more than mounted herders with dogs, they nakedly and explicitly directed the movement of reindeer. Apart from helicopters and vaccinations, fences were the main contribution of Soviet scientific management to reindeer herding. Just as the Great Wall of China was designed to deflect invading Mongol armies, so fences rerouted swarming reindeer herds as the ultimate sign that they were no longer wild. As you stumbled over the tussocks along the route of a fence and stepped around the leaning buttresses, and as you ran your hand along the rough coniferous bark of the springy yet firm horizontals, set far enough apart for a reindeer's head to poke through but not its body, you knew you were stroking the very concept of migration control.

Below -40, the school would be closed and children sent home; helicopters and biplanes were not supposed to fly; saliva solidified before it hit the ground, and if you threw hot tea up into the air, it froze and tinkled downward in a patter of tiny crystals.

His best find was a sable in another trap. This would fetch 150 roubles. He sat down on the floor and neatly peeled the skin inside out off the sable's tiny body onto a wooden framework, gently drawing the five bony little fingers of each paw as if through a sleeve.

To a crackly brass-band recording of 'The Slavic Maiden's Farewell' (Stalin's favourite march), a procession of herders filed past a politicians' podium set up on the ice, holding placards aloft with the names of their districts and wearing their finest coats of brown reindeer fur, inlaid with elaborate designs in white. The patterns were mostly geometric and each one was distinctive to a particular village or woman, but some were experimental and one represented a space rocket, complete with strips of exhaust in white reindeer fur.
There is a most amazing description of a white reindeer that has become "intolerably disobedient" being tied to a tree and having "every scrap of antler" sawed off, "right down to the pedicle." The other reindeer come up and kick it, the attacks becoming increasingly violent until finally the reindeer moves off alone and stands in isolation. "I had a sense of reindeer sociality," Vitebsky comments, "of a team that had become exasperated with the bad behaviour of one of their colleagues." The scene of conversation that follows is utterly charming...

And another striking passage concerns the grandfather of one of the older herders, who traveled to Finland in the early 1920s as informant for a linguist making a dictionary of Eveny:
When the political climate hardened in the late 1920s, he was arrested because he had been abroad, and died in prison. The book, a monumental description of the dialect of Sakkyryr, the village built to command the region where the Nikitins traditionally migrated, took fifty years and a second editor before it was ready for publication as a learned tome, with commentary in German. Copies are shelved in scholarly libraries around the world (though it is very specialized and no one in Cambridge had ever signed it out before me). Nikitin's ancestor was killed for telling someone the Eveny words for the objects and processes that make it possible to stay alive on the landscape: the nouns for the kinds of reindeer, the verbs for handling them, the adverbs that explain how these actions are performed: quickly, slowly, tightly, loosely, like this, like that. Probably neither of those scholars in Finland knew what had happened to the man who was the source of the material that had become their life's work.
And the description of how alcohol led the village, in the 1990s, "to resemble a horror movie in which people succumb ed one by one to a zombie plague" is also quite extraordinary; so is the episode, briefly alluded to, in which one of Vitebsky's students get Congress "to spend a million dollars sending reindeer herders from around the Sakha Republic to learn consumer-friendly meat packaging with Doug Drum, known as the Sausage King of Alaska"...

But I will stop here. Highly recommended, in case you could not tell!

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