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Trial by Water

Published: October 20, 2006 (Issue # 1214)


"North of Mongolia and Manchuria, draining an area as large as Spain, France, and all the countries of Eastern Europe combined, and fed by five hundred tributaries, the Lena is the tenth longest river in the world, and the third longest in Russia. It flows down from the Baikal Mountains through the taiga of the Siberian Plateau into the boggy lowlands and tundra of the Republic of Sakha ... to empty, through a broad delta, into the stormy Laptev Sea, a bay of the Arctic Ocean, some 450 miles above the Arctic Circle."In the summer of 2004, the writer Jeffrey Tayler decided he would traverse that distance by raft, braving sudden storms and crushing rapids, horseflies large enough to bite through clothes, bears, wild dogs and the Soviet gulag's semi-deserted outposts, now populated by drunken villagers, thieves and corrupt officials. One wonders, Didn't he have any better way to spend his summer vacation? Why not St.-Tropez?

As Tayler, Moscow correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of four other travel books, explains in "River of No Reprieve," "Those wilds, I sensed, had something to teach me." Having lived in Russia for the past 13 years, he wanted to know, "Had any of the strength I so admired in Russians rubbed off on me? In short, could I hack it on the Lena, camping amid clouds of mosquitoes, enduring the cold and Arctic storms, as the Cossacks did? I felt I had to know — or how could I ever understand, let alone be worthy of, the country to which I had devoted my life?"

Surely there are other ways to understand Russia than journey for two months in an impossibly small raft down a Siberian river. But Tayler's intrepid curiosity and passion for his adopted homeland are winning on the page. By the end of the book we almost agree with him: There could be few better strategies for contemplating the colossal contradictions of Russia's populace and history than tracing the Lena, the unexplored heart of the largest nation on earth.

The voyage is undertaken in a custom-built raft, and by Tayler's own admission is made possible only through the skills of his "beefy-shouldered" Russian guide, Vadim, a former dentist who now spends six months a year exploring Russia's Far North. It is Vadim who designs the raft to personal specifications and who navigates the river's myriad dangers. At times he aggressively forces them to race impending winds and storms; at other times he is frustratingly cautious, beaching the raft for days until conditions improve. Vadim is moody, isolated, even antisocial, and the two men do not get along. "You're just a writer living on paper," the Russian scolds Tayler. He also baits him: "America doesn't have its own cuisine. Your national dish is hamburgers."

I admit to feeling this last one in the gut. But Tayler keeps his poise, aware that his life depends on Vadim. Wistfully, he confesses near journey's end that the two men have not grown close. But it says something about the book's honesty that, despite Tayler's feelings, the reader grows to admire Vadim's skills, loyalty and devotion to the success of the trip. By the time we say goodbye to Vadim in a camp on the Arctic Ocean, where he has saved the near-failed expedition in a brilliantly rendered confrontation with a shady, if powerful, Arctic official, we want to give the prickly man an enormous bear hug.

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Tuesday, July 29


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