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from the January 2022 issue

Nastassja Martin’s “In the Eye of the Wild”: Embodied by the Bear

Reviewed by Laura Marris

Nastassja Martin's poetic memoir dissects an unforgettable, harrowing encounter with an animal.

The first time I camped overnight in Wyoming, I was handed a bright red canister of bear spray right before going to bed. Back in my tent, I stared at the words COUNTER ASSAULT written across the packaging in paramilitary font, trying to imagine what a grizzly would look like, smell like, if it got close enough to require the mace. I was just out of college, working as a field assistant for geologists, and unprepared for the potential confrontation this canister represented. It was absurd in my hands, a trinket compared with the wildness of the bear, and I spent the night sleepless, listening for paws. A single question had changed the valance of the landscape around me—what would happen if I met a bear, face to face?

Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild mainly takes place in the aftermath of this question. While conducting fieldwork on animism in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia, Martin climbs a volcano and emerges from a patch of fog. A bear stands just steps away. What follows is a kind of dialogue—the bear stares at her, and she stares back; he bares his teeth, and she bares her own. The animal reacts by nearly killing her, but stops short of crushing her skull in his mouth. She, in turn, wounds the bear with her ice axe and survives to write this account of interspecies porousness—a vivid refusal of one-dimensional experience, rendered in Sophie R. Lewis’s eloquent and perfectly paced translation. The lines of inquiry that emerge from Martin’s encounter are far deeper than my initial question: “What does it mean,” she asks, “to emerge from the abyss where uncertainty reigns and choose to build new boundaries using brand new materials salvaged from the depths of your dreams’ unvarying darkness? From the very depths of the yawning gob of a being other than yourself?”

It’s fair to say that Martin was prepared for her human boundaries to blur. As an anthropologist in the field, she begins by keeping two sets of notebooks—one for daytime, to be turned into future scholarship, and the other dedicated to the wildness of her nighttime thoughts, a black book of words and fissures that come to her in the dark. Increasingly, she dreams of bears. They emerge from her childhood garden; they encircle her tent on the taiga; she gets glimpses of their teeth, their claws, their “disquiet.” In Kamchatka, the Even people she is living with notice the way she wakes soaked in sweat and inform her that she is not dreaming of the bear, but dreaming with him. 

This thought shakes her, but it also propels her—after all, she has come to this remote part of the world to research how the inhabitants have been dealing with loss and uncertainty in their environment for thousands of years. When she starts her research on animism among the Gwich’in and Even people who live on opposite sides of the Bering Strait, she thinks the dreams of animals she records in her night notebook will “make nice material to write about, to get into animism as applied to dreams, the interpermeability of two souls, the tanglement of ontologies, the dialogue between worlds.” Then she winces: “What presumption! To think that my inner disturbance would not genuinely propel me beyond myself . . . .But where, towards what or whom, to direct my listening?”

It’s an apt question because Martin is a consummate listener, sensitive to the connotations of words and the cultural heft behind them. Though In the Eye of the Wild is billed as “an anthropologist’s tale of reconstitution after a bear attack,” Martin herself never uses that word for what happens between her and the bear, preferring to call it a meeting, an encounter, a confrontation, an implosion of a boundary, a hybridization, a kiss, a resonance, or even a “semantic void, an off-script leap that challenges and unnerves all categories.” 

As you may have guessed by now, this is a book that feels genuinely driven by its questioning. It’s one thing to talk about the post-human as a reframing of principles, and quite another to be embodied by a creature, the bear’s face in hers and hers in his, exchanging eye for eye and tooth for tooth. The intensity of this experience places Martin in a different realm. I refuse to use the phrase “uncharted territory,” but there’s a sense that what happens takes place somewhere unmappable, where you have to feel your way in the dark. Martin has the strong impression that there’s something odd about her survival, that she has been allowed to return alive from a mythical, primordial realm. “Death,” she writes, “was the most effective way to escape the unlivable limes, or frontier, that the encounter between two beings from different worlds implies—to escape the cycle of metamorphosis which is then triggered and from which there can be no return.” But she doesn’t die. Instead, she has to learn how to coexist with what she’s seen.

She survives, in part, through instances when she chooses not to listen. Not to a therapist in a maxillofacial surgery unit who tells her, in a stunningly tone-deaf moment, that a person’s face is their identity. Not to all the surgeons who insist on continuing to reopen her jaw in a kind of “cold war” between Russian and French hospitals. Not to her hiking companion who goes into ecstasies about the beauty of Mother Nature. Not to another therapist who says that the bear is a boundary in her life, that she went out into the world to find her own inner darkness in the animal. In these instances of remarkable lucidity, Martin refuses to heal in a way that would be considered “normal,” refuses to shut herself back inside the expected borders of human thought. “There was that incomprehensible us,” she writes of the encounter with the bear. And then there is the human social world, the world of doctors and hospitals that wants to close what is open in her, to make her back into an I, alone.

Fortunately for us, her resistance is a welcome change from the typical fallacies that predominate in books about the wild. These problems can best be summed up by what the critic Kathryn Schulz calls “the great imaginative failure of both spiritual and misanthropic strains of nature writing,” that “they valorize the challenges that arise when we confront ourselves and the wilderness, but not the challenges that arise when we confront one another.” What’s brilliant about Martin’s book is that she’s able to call bullshit on the idea of the pristine, the virginal, the wilderness, while still carrying on a deep conversation with non-human and non-Western ways of being. And she documents how deeply that engagement disturbs other humans, both Even and French. One particularly ironic example occurs when she returns from Siberia to the Salpêtrière, a famous Parisian hospital. “As it’s a bear that has alighted at the Salpêtrière,” she writes, “traveling by way of my body, and a Russian bear, to boot, the hospital staff have activated all their safety and security procedures.” They place her in quarantine as if she were an infectious disease patient, suiting themselves up in coveralls, overshoes, and masks, which they discard when they leave her room. Of course, it’s not the bear that makes her sick—it’s the antibiotic-resistant superbug she catches from their scalpels. The problem, for other people, is that Martin contains more than “can be made to fit the human project”: the bear, the Russian surgeon’s metal plate, her dreams, her interactions with her family, a bacterial colony from the French operating table, her night notebooks, the words of the Even. 

Given this book’s doubleness and its dialogue with other voices, I find it particularly moving to read Martin in translation—through the craft of an art form that also strives to keep the borders open between languages and selves. Lewis’s translation is full of lovely choices, from the decision to keep the French word limes in the text and gloss it, to the title itself. On a recent Wednesday, I had a chance to see Lewis talk about titling the book in English, and I was struck by the way the title represented the difficulty of the book itself. In French, the book is called Croire aux fauves—literally “to believe in beasts.” But fauves is a much more multivalent word. It can mean a wild animal, a big cat, a beast, but it can also mean a kind of tawny, primal color, which I’ve always imagined as roughly the hue of a saber-toothed tiger. Lewis said she considered other options like “to believe in the animal” and “listening to the animal,” but ultimately settled on the meeting of eyes that unleashes the encounter between woman and bear. To be In the Eye of the Wild is to be in its sights, but also to peer into the animal world, to stop wearing the mask of human binaries, to look through a wider view.

In the end, that’s just what Martin does. In refusing to pin down her encounter, she stays liminal without going silent. “The wild creature bit my jaw,” she writes, “it was my turn to speak.”

© 2022 by Laura Marris. All rights reserved.

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