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Alexander Grigorenko: Мэбэт (Mebet)

The eponymous Mebet is from a Siberian tribe called the Vela. His name means The Strong One. He was orphaned when quite young but, instead of following tradition and living with a relative, he lived on his own. However, he did not follow traditional rules but hunted on the land of other tribes and when he was attacked by the people of that tribe for doing so, he killed them. Because he seems to be very strong and essentially unbeatable, he was nicknamed God’s Favourite. Indeed, it was suggested that his real father was a god.

When he wanted to marry, instead of following the traditional route of offering a bridal price to her family, he abducted a woman, Yadne. Her name meant Goes by Foot and was normally a man’s name, which had apparently put off potential suitors. She produced a succession of girls, all of whom died young. Medeb was thinking of getting another wife, when a boy was born. He was called Hadko (= Blizzard Man). Hadko grows up to be as strong as his father but far less lawless. He obeys the traditions and laws. When he finds a woman he wants to marry, he is prepared to pay the bride price. Medeb, however, says he should abduct her.

Hadko goes out hunting and collects goods to pay the bride price but when he goes to her father he is rejected, despite the help of a relative he meets on the way, Makhako. It is Makhako who introduces him to the One-Eyed Witch who gives him magic mushrooms. They make him very sick. The Witch will pay for her actions.

Medeb solves the whole problem by adducting the woman in question, who is called Hadne, the feminine version of Hadko. Her tribe, the Vaynot, are not amused and challenge father and son to a battle, even though they massively outnumber them. Medeb and Hadko, however, are far cleverer than the Vaynot.

Hadko has not been a model husband and feels guilty about this so he goes off to hunt a bear. He finds the bear but he is on the land of another tribe and five of them turn up, accusing him of trespassing. Once again the luck of his family saves him.

Hadne is now pregnant and wants the blessing of her family. Mebet is totally opposed to the idea. She gives birth to a son, Sevser (= Light-Eyed One ), who is soon the apple of his grandfather’s eye.

Mebet is starting to get old and a spirit tells him that his time may soon be up. He, however, wants an extension, in order to see his grandson grow up. He has first to persuade the Old One and then The Mother (a god figure, though, as we later learn, even she has a superior) to grant this extension and then go through a series of onerous trials, which will be difficult even for a man of his strength and bravery.

Medeb, as the Mother tells him, is never unhappy because he can get all he wants. As a result he is never grateful because he has no need to be. She blames herself for making him this way but, nevertheless, there is a price to pay and that is the ordeal he has to go through. We follow his ordeal which even for a man of his strength and courage is particularly trying and, inevitably, does not quite go to plan. Also, perhaps inevitably, this part of the book is highly colourful and fanciful. The blurb on the back of my copy quotes the great Sergey Kuznetsov who compares this book to Lord of Rings. I am not sure that Tolkien or even Grigorenko would agree though I can see why he might make the comparison.

The interesting thing about this book is that we have no idea when it is set. There is no mention of Russia and Russians and, as far as we can tell, the people we meet are not even aware of the existence of Russia and Russians. The only exception is one character, who is dead when he says this, mentions that he saw an ironclad steamer but had no contact with the people on board. Therefore, we might assume it is set sometime in the nineteenth century. The Russians had started settling in Siberia as from the early eighteenth century but the main settlement occurred with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was primarily constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ironclad ships did not really appear till the mid-nineteenth century.

Medeb can perhaps be considered a superhero, unbeaten whatever the opposition – human, animal and even spirit. This does make him a not entirely sympathetic character, as he is arrogant and only shows real affection towards his grandson, though, of course, we have to admire his strength, courage and, indeed, intelligence. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the book as it is different from the Russian novels I normally read.

The few Siberian novels I have read have all been set in gulags and if native populations have appeared they have generally been looked down on. This books shows us the native populations in a different light, particularly with their myths and legends but also their customs, laws and conflicts. It is not surprisingly a male-ruled society, with women all too often treated as chattels, though that is qualified somewhat at the end of the book. The people have strict laws and people are expected to obey them, with Medeb one of the few that does not and gets away with it. I assume that Grigorenko has done his research on the Nenets. He gives us a fine tale of a people we rarely meet in literature.

Publishing history

First published by Arsis in 2011
First English publication by Glagoslav in 2020
Translated by Christopher Culver