Vasily Golovanov: Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [Island or A Justification for Meaningless Travel]
I am not sure if this is a novel. It has been described, in Russian, as невыдуманный роман, i.e. a non-fiction novel. French critics have suggested that it is autofiction. I would go with non-fiction novel and liken it to the works of W G Sebald, Roberto Calasso, George Packer and other such writers found on my site. He has been associated with the geopoetics movement. However you categorise it, it is a book about one man, the author, realising a dream and heading off to a remote island and exploring it, while, at the same time, dealing with his own issues, enjoying the remote island, with its interesting fauna and flora and its native culture and making a journey (he actually makes three) which is seemingly pointless.
The book opens on Kolguyev Island, an island in the Arctic Ocean, east of the Barents Sea. He admits that it was a romantic dream to go there but realises, once he is there, that it is not. Indeed, as he states, there is nothing less romantic than the Far North. Beauty is a rare thing, he states, quoting Ornette Coleman. He had been a journalist and is tired of going to trouble spots where thousands of people have been killed, such as Sumgait, Karabakh and Sukumi. The first section – over a hundred pages – is nominally about his first trip to the island but, apart from the first day or two, we learn nothing much about his stay on the island, except for a few comments on what he saw and did, till the second section. Much of this section is concerned with the background to his journey. This includes his own interests, his personal demons and his preparations for and journey to the island.
As any good non-fictional novel must do, he tells stories of the people there (or on the way), such as the man who has built a birdhouse for starlings. When asked whether starlings ever come to the place, he curtly responds No. We learn about the old woman who had had a hard life and had lost, in accidents, the persons she loved most – her husband and her son. We learn about the woman who survived the Siege of Leningrad, though her father had died and she was left alone with her two brothers, both of whom later died in tragic circumstances. The book has many such stories. We also learn about his fascination with islands. The first book he read entirely on his own was Robinson Crusoe which, not surprisingly, gave him an interest in islands. (He has very broad reading habits and seems to read many non-Russian books.) He goes on to mention what he calls a poetic genealogy of islands, also found in caves, mountains, rivers, grottoes and fields, all of which have a particular fascination for humans. For an island, what attracts him is its remoteness, isolation and mystery and we see evidence of this throughout the book. However, he goes on to say that there is no longer any mystery in discovery. Everything on the planet has been discovered. Earlier generations could still discover things. We can not. Nevertheless, one of the advantages of going to the far North, where he is going, is that it is off the tourist beaten track.
He had dreamed of this for so long that one of his colleagues teased him that it was all talk and that he would never go. That immediately spurred him on to plan his first journey. However, we now learn about the plans for his second trip. Several people had volunteered to join him but, when pushed, they all backed down. Finally, he found a sixteen-year old boy, a son of friends, who would come. But we then move to his more personal reasons – his divorce and his desire to escape (he will later refer to himself as The Fugitive and compare himself to Rimbaud). However, it is when he gets on to his descriptions of the journey that things start to be more interesting. The gloomy foggy landscape holds a certain attraction and he learns about the Komi legends (he will later talk about the legends and history of the Nenets, the people of Kolguyev). He learns that the area was not subject to dekulakisation as it was too remote and the locals were not going to betray their own. Once he arrived in Bugrino, the only town on the island and a town he considers as metaphor for abandon, we get a better picture of the island, even if it is a gloomy place, with the sense of death (caused, as he later finds out, by a huge pit containing reindeer skulls), Moscow, he says, does not exist. However, it is also a world without boundaries, a world of legends, a world of liberty.
The author is by no means the first person to visit the island and he tells us about some of his predecessors. Ada Rybachuk and Volodymyr Melnychenko, two Ukrainian artists, spent some time there in the 1960s. However, the author he particularly refers to is Aubyn Trevor-Battye who visited Kolguyev in 1894 and wrote a book about it. Indeed, before we get on to explorers to Kolguev, he gets carried away with other, early explorers, particularly those from Europe, who came to what is now Northern Russia.
The tone changes when we learn of his second visit, the one with the sixteen-year old boy. We learn, in this section, a lot more about his previous visit, in particular, about Grigori Ivanovich Ardeev, and his sons, real Nenets, who act as his guide. We get a far more detailed description of the landscape, and his joy in the landscape. Indeed, he says, he needs a new language to properly describe what he sees. He needs René Guénon, a writer on the relationship between humans and space, and sacred space, to help him. But, at the same time, there are also distinctly unpleasant places. I wanted to photograph this place but could not.To tell the truth, the ruins of the far North are a concentrated mass of folly. It is impossible to get any poetry out of it. I felt that I had fallen into the Empire of Evil, into a place which has long since been abandoned by men and by gods.
While he certainly does describe what he sees, his relationship with his guides and the various local peoples and the landscape of the area, what also makes this interesting is his digressions. These vary from Vasily Rozanov to shamanism and then onto faith in general; from the Nenets language to his time in Paris and Crimea. He talks, in some detail, about the Siirts/Sikhirts, an underground, gnome-like legendary people who the Nenets claim lived (and perhaps still live) in the woods. He spends a lot of time on reindeers, a key part of Nenets culture.
I really did enjoy this novel as it described a fascinating and remote place which I know I will never visit (and will never want to visit) as well as giving insight into a complex man, who does not fully understand his own motives. His digressions on many subjects, whether broad issues, such as faith, specific issues relating to the life and culture of the island or specific issues not related to the island but which take his interest all make this book a thoroughly enjoyable read.
First published 2002 by Vagrius
No English translation
Published in French as Éloge des voyages insensés ou L’île by Verdier in 2008
Translated by Hélène Châtelain
Published in German as Die Insel oder Rechtfertigung des sinnlosen Reisens by Matthes & Seitz in 2012
Translated by Eveline Passet