Ben’s Review – “Travels in Siberia” by Ian Frazier

This review marks a departure for Genre Lasagna. Up to this point, we’ve been focused on fantasy and science fiction novels. And while those genres remain some of our favorites and we will continue to read and review them, we have decided to widen our scope and discuss books of all genres and classifications, including, as this review shows, creative nonfiction.

Travels in Siberia is an enormous, sprawling travelogue that follows its writer, Ian Frazier, on five distinct trips to the north of Russia. Written over the course of over ten years, Frazier, who is employed by The New Yorker, which funded many of his excursions, attempts to understand the self-described “Russia-love” that has infected him since his first visits to the country.

Good travel writing allows us to experience a foreign place with the writer acting as our proxy. As such, we don’t get much in the way of Frazier’s interiority. At first, this frustrated me. Most of my reading in nonfiction has been book-length memoir, which is dependent on reader’s access to the author’s thoughts and emotions. Travels in Siberia offers no such access, but I don’t think that’s a fault. Frazier more than fulfills his role as a learned, curious, and articulate tour guide to one of the weirdest countries on the planet, allowing us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions about what he shows us.

The book is divided into five sections, which roughly coincide with five distinct trips that Frazier took to Siberia. In the first sections of the novel, Frazier is exploring and learning about the country. He intersperses his personal narrative chapters with meticulously researched historical chapters that give context to the state of the region. He tracks the movements of civilizations in Siberia from the gruesome rule of Genghis Khan, up through the Tsars, and ending with Stalin and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The book’s strongest section details Frazier’s attempt, with the help of two guides, to cross the entirety of the country, from Moscow to the Vladivostok, a distance of over 3,000 miles, in a small minivan that is in a constant state of disrepair. Frazier has a keen eye for detail and a knack for description. I do wish that he would have given more descriptions of the people that he met rather than relying on the description of place to do the heavy lifting for him, but he makes the point again and again that on that early trip he struggled with the language and had a difficult time relating to people, even to his guides.

One of the things I admire most about the book is that Frazier lets his experience and the history do most of the speaking for him. He never descends into a critique of the country (although he does point out the multitude of ways in which Russia remains kinda messed up), and never passes judgment. There is no artifice or embellishment, no sense that Frazier is warping or obscuring facts and events to make meaning out of them. In fact, at the end of the book, Frazier is still grappling with the illogical potency of his Russia-love. The book, then, is an attempt not only to understand the complex history of a place, but also an attempt to understand the pull of that place. He does not set out, however, to write Siberia into meaning. He leaves questions, lets issues linger. This is a feature, not a bug, because any attempt to sum up a place as large and storied as Siberia, even in a book as dense, long, and sprawling as this, would have been disingenuous and necessarily faulty.

Siberia is a strange place that, despite its remoteness, has a place in the consciousness of the world. Ian Frazier spent ten years of his life learning about and experiencing it. Travels in Siberia is a long (at times over-long), well written (at time over-written), and highly readable account of a strange unknowable place. I didn’t love the whole thing, and vast sections of it are somewhat laborious to get through, but in the end I felt like all of its various moving parts added up to something extremely interesting.

Travels in Siberia is available in paperback from Picador.

It gets four slices of lasagna out of five.

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