Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is generally considered to be the most significant Russian author of the twentieth century with an indigenous heritage. He came from the Chukchi tribe of Siberia, and his works mostly deal with the unique ecological and cultural wisdom of these Arctic people and how their identity is tested upon interaction with the outside world.
I first learned of Rytkheu through his beautiful novel Dream of Polar Fog, published by Archipelago Books. Another book, The Chukchi Bible, is in the works to come out in English next year from the same publisher. (An extract from The Chukchi Bible was featured in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion magazine as part of the WWB/Orion Walking the World collaboration. It is still available for preview here).
Last October I was part of an international artists residency traveling for three weeks aboard a hundred-year-old Dutch schooner around the arctic islands of Spitsbergen. The project is called The Arctic Circle and the ship is the Noorderlicht which means “Northern Lights.”
In the museum in Spitsbergen’s capital city of Longyearbyen, I came upon a pile of remaindered books for sale, including another novel by Rytkheu, Magic Numbers, or Magiske Tall in Norwegian. I lived for several years in Oslo so I can read Norwegian pretty well, and as I dipped into this novel I was immediately intrigued. It’s based on the true story of Roald Amundsen, the first man to the South Pole, on a later expedition he took across the Arctic seas of Siberia in 1918, at the exact time the Russian Revolution was in gear thousands of miles away in Moscow. On the trip he hires a Chukchi shaman named Kagot as his cook. As Kagot learns more about the Western world, he teaches Amundsen and the crew more about his own world, a world where every action in nature and human society has a reason and is a sign.
One particular incident in the novel really grabbed me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It concerns a man who tragically loses his whole family and all his possessions when his sled falls through thin ice and disappears into the icy dark sea. He miraculously survives the accident, but he is all alone. To the shaman Kagot this is a momentous event, and he teaches this man who has suffered so much that he must start completely anew, forget everything, even to the point of choosing a whole new name.
In the book Kagot learns about numbers and mathematics and gets bewitched by them, searching for the ultimate number to explain everything. Meanwhile Communism increases its grip upon his land. The future is unknown. Things do not end well for Kagot, but many years later his granddaughter meets the author who is giving a lecture in Copenhagen about the history of Chukchi literature . . . For now you can read this book in Russian, German, or Norwegian. Maybe it will be in English someday.
I was inspired by this one incident to construct a whole new story long with images and sounds that I collected on my journey, which I've included here.
Published Apr 16, 2010 Copyright 2010 David Rothenberg