The TripFiction Book Club January/February 2020 reads ‘A Death in the Medina’ by James von Leyden
Novel set in Siberia (a masterful story of morality and survival)
25th November 2019
The Archipelago of Another Life by Andreï Makine, novel set in Siberia.
Here is a novel that brings Siberia to life and presents Soviet Russia under Stalin in a cold, stark and dispassionate fashion. The Archipelago of Another Life is the simplest of tales and utterly absorbing for it. Written as a frame narrative; first we meet an unnamed young man, an adolescent who arrives at the isolated village of Tugur in the far east of Russia and spies a stranger heading off into the taiga – the dense forests of Siberia. He follows and is eventually snared by the curious man: Pavel Garstev.
From here, reservist Garstev takes up the story of his pursuit of a prisoner who escaped from a gulag back in the early 1950s. Five men and a dog give chase and are perpetually outwitted by the mysterious figure never far away. The interplays between Garstev and the self-serving lickspittle Lieutenant Ratinsky, the power-crazed Captain Luskas, officer-in-command Butov and sergeant Vassin – who handles Almaz, the Alsatian mastiff cross – are well-executed and entertaining. The writing is sparse and flawless and the atmosphere Makine evokes is haunting. A little after midway, the reader is confronted with a sudden revelation, and for a few pages the more sensitive among us might wish to set this novel aside. Don’t. I persisted and was rewarded with further revelations, with redemption, justice of sorts, and just a touch of romance.
The Archipelago of Another Life juxtaposes the brutality of life both under Stalin and afterwards, and the wild yet curiously nurturing natural environment of the taiga. Here is a story rich in setting, the taiga in many ways the central character, and we would do well to travel to this place in our imaginations as we turn the pages, rather than book a plane ticket or a cruise, not because Siberia’s sub-zero temperatures and inhospitable forests are not ideal travel locations, but because the taiga should be left alone to be what it is. In his use of the taiga, Makine presents us with a masterful story of morality and survival and a meditation on the nature of humanity in the twentieth century.
Guest Review by Isobel Blackthorn for the TripFiction Team
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