In The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern notes that impressionist artist Cezanne, “wanted to fuse perceptions and conceptions—the way we see things from a single point of view and the way we know them to be from a composite of views. Experience tells us that the opening of a vase is circular but when viewed from the side we see it as an ellipse. Cezanne combined these two perceptions visually with multiple perspectives (Kern, 142).” Similarly, Ian Frazier, in his book Travels in Siberia, combines the stereotypical expectations of Siberia, with rich history and his own experiences traveling across Siberia. He explores stereotypes and preconceived notions, bringing a new perspective to an area of the world that seems to remain detached in an era of constant communication. Ultimately, however Frazier leaves Siberia with an unfinished understanding of it. Although Frazier manages to shed light on cultural and historical factors which shaped Siberia, and manages to make a place as remote as Siberia, seem both familiar and charmingly foreign, Siberia remains in “incomplete grandiosity” that it started out with in the beginning of the book.
Kern claims that the encroaching “railroads ended the sanctity of remoteness…” and that “the telephone permitted businessmen to buy and sell from afar without leaving their offices and at the same time expanded their “territory” and forced them to reach out further (Kern, 213-215).” He also notes that Jules Verne’s novel “[Around the World in Eighty Days] projected a new sense of world unity [in the early 19th century] that became ever sharper in the decades that followed as the railroad, telephone bicycle, automobile, airplane, and cinema revolutionized the sense of distance(213, Kern).” Technology increasingly makes the world seem smaller, more accessible, and more relatable, yet Siberia, which Ian Frazier seeks out in his book Travels in Siberia, escapes that accessibility. Siberia remains an indescribable, undefined, borderless landscape of ice and exiles. Siberia, like Russia described in the “lines by Tyutchev…cannot be understood by the mind…cannot be measured by ordinary measure: She has her own particular stance—all you can do is believe in her (Frazier, 191).” In the minds of Americans Siberia became a cultural symbol of social exile, while “Russians from Moscow and St. Petersburg tend to have exaggerated ideas about Siberia” as well (Frazier, 152). For all of Frazier’s attempts to find a common ground between America and the Russia he has fallen in love with, he finds that despite the similarities between small towns in Russia and in America, he doesn’t “think anyone who saw Yakutsk would be reminded of Elwood, or of a place like it. Elwood is another small American town that has passed through stages of early settlement, enthusiastic development, industrial boom, and recent decline. In those terms, its frontier years ended ages ago. Yakutsk,[representative of Siberia] on the other hand, is still a frontier place, still hanging on to the writhing wilderness by its fingernails (Frazier, 390).”
Frazier doggedly attempts to investigate prison camps during his travels, but part of the darkness of Siberia, the wilderness of it turns out to be partially in the ingrained repression of painful memories. Where Americans would dutifully commemorate lost-lives, the Russians prefer to forget. Siberia, remains a chronicle of this habit, with prison camps left untouched and unnoticed, preserved only by Siberia’s icy climate. One could classify Siberia as an unkempt memory—a collection of mementos left to slowly fall apart. At one point in his travels, Frazier “ passed a village that Victor said he remembered as a lovely place in his childhood” but which Krushchev ruined(Frazier, 174). “The remnants of the village could still be seen, crumbling at the feet of out-of place and also crumbling 1950s-era high rises (Frazier, 174).” Siberia is the product of overthrown governments and harsh climates, characterized by nasty weather and brutality, yet Frazier seems to love Siberia nonetheless. In his comparison to America, and the Wild West—of kitschy film fame—and the beloved road trip, Frazier notes that, “In America we love roads. To be “on the road” is to be happy and alive and free. Whatever lonesomeness the road implies is also a blankness that soon will be filled with possibility. A road leading to the horizon almost always signifies a hopeful vista for Americans. ‘Riding off into the sunset’ has always been our happy ending. But I could find no happy-ending vista here, only the opposite. This had also been called the Convicts’ Road or the Exiles’ Road. Not only was it lonesome, but it ran permanently in the wrong direction, from the exiles’ point of view. Longing and melancholy seemed to have worked themselves into the very soil; the old road and the land around it seemed downcast as if they’d had their feelings hurt by how much the people passing by did not want to be here (Frazier, 220).” Ultimately, Frazier finds few redeeming qualities in Siberia. The mosquitos are unbearable, the landscape often swampy or bitterly cold, the sides of the road filled with trash. The redeeming qualities of the books come from the wanderlust characteristics of it.
Frazier chooses a risky style, telling his story like a travelogue interspersed with historical notes. His style however, emphasizes just how spectacular the experience of Siberia really is. Siberia makes the story, it evokes reactions, it creates unusual stories. Had Frazier traveled through Iowa and used the same type of plot development, it likely would have been very dry. Yet somehow, the extraordinary situations created by the broken down van, Sergei’s ingenuity, and the foreignness of the whole thing create both tension and humor. The architect “Sitte insisted that the rhythmic distribution of spaces in pleasing and functional patterns should be the top priority. He argued that urban spaces should be enclosed to give them a definite shape. He also criticized the horror of empty space that repeatedly led planners to put statutes and monuments in the center of town squares (Kern, 158).” This horror of empty, undefined spaces, lend Siberia its mystery and its terror. Both the fear and the draw of the unknown draw Frazier back out into Siberia, and define the Russian’s definitions of Siberia. Siberia was known for is ruins and its repression. Frazier makes Siberia sound unappealing and yet, one suspects that Siberia provides for him the one destination to cure an almost insatiable desire to escape and explore.
Ultimately, Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, does not make Siberia a more welcoming and warm place. Frazier acknowledges Siberia’s flaws, the proven stereotypes, the forced resourcefulness of the people. Instead Frazier achieves the effect of the French poet Mallarmé who insisted that poetry must “paint not the thing, but the effect that it produces.” Mallarmé suggested that “the line of poetry..should be composed not of words but of intentions, and all the words should fade away before the sensation.” The power of Frazier’s Siberia, comes not from the reality of Siberia, but from the reactions, the emotions that Siberia evokes within Frazier. Mallarmé wrote about his own work, Herodiade, “If only I’d chosen an easy work! But, precisely, I, who am sterile and crepuscular, have chosen a terrifying subject, whose sensations, if they are strong, reach the point of atrocity, and if they are vague, have the strange attitude of mystery… I have, moreover, found an intimate and unique way of painting and noting down the very fleeting impressions. I should add, which is even more terrifying, that all these impressions follow one another as in a symphony, and I often have entire days when I ask myself if this impression can accompany that one, what is their relationship and effect … You can guess that I write few lines in a week.” Frazier who chose a similarly terrifying and mysterious subject seems to be plagued by the same problems. Weaving historical scenes into his travels across the ice without plot development, could have made the book unbearable. Still, Frazier, like Mallarmé, managed to synthesize these scenes, intuitively recognizing the significance of their “relationship and effect.”
Frazier ends the books brilliantly. He manages to capture the impossibility of truly capturing Siberia, relating the vastness of its history and relates his concept of Siberia:
“From time to time I contemplate the phrase ‘the incomplete grandiosity of Russia.’ I’m not sure who said it originally, or how I happen to have it in my head, but it describes the country. Russia’s grandiosity, good or bad, doesn’t end. It just trails off into the country’s expanses like Kutuzov’s army evaporating before Napoleon. The incomplete grandiosity pursues itself out there in Siberia somewhere…Incomplete and cruel grandiosity (468, Frazier).”
He doesn’t buff away the roughness of the Siberian landscape and the people who occupy it, but he remains enamored with Russia. The beauty of Siberia can be found in its mysterious history, its inaccessibility, and its continued mystery in an increasingly familiar world.