It would be incongruous to publish a small, tidy travelogue about a vast and unruly place. Ian Frazier's garrulous Travels in Siberia, at nearly 500 pages long, rambles through ancient history and contemporary anecdote, is full of both affection and frustration, and has a deliberately inconclusive ending. It seems appropriate to Siberia—or to how we imagine it, anyway.
Imagined is what it must be, literally: "Officially, there is no such place as Siberia" is the first sentence of Travels in Siberia. The word does describe a condition, though, and an unpleasant one: "In fashionable restaurants," Frazier notes, "Siberia is the section of less-desirable tables given to customers whom the matre d' does not especially like." In short, a synonym for exile—and cold.
Frazier was drawn not to the condition, however, but to the place itself, including the cold. "When I was in my early forties," the 59-year-old writes, "I became infected with a love of Russia." That led him to a particular infatuation with Siberia, which he crossed twice (west to east, then east to west) by automobile and train; last winter, he spent a few weeks in one of its cities, Novosibirsk. Frazier is best known as a humorist—mostly writing in the dry, wry style of The New Yorker, where he has been a fixture since 1973—and there is plenty of comedy in Travels in Siberia. But it is ultimately a love letter to a place that manages to be, in Frazier's words, "so great and so horrible simultaneously."
The first two parts of the book include an idiosyncratic history of Russia—with a focus, of course, on Siberia: the Mongols and their Khans; the unfortunate Decembrists; the Bolshevik-loving journalist John Reed, immortalized in Warren Beatty's Reds; and especially a 19th-century telegraph operator named George Kennan, like Frazier an Ohioan, who spent 1864–67 traveling in Siberia on an assignment to investigate the possibility of laying telegraph cable there. Kennan later published multiple books on Siberia and became something of a Russia expert. Frazier's book is, in some ways, a gracious response to his fellow Buckeye.
Part III is where Travels in Siberia gets moving. It recounts Frazier's five-week van expedition, with two Russian guides, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, in 2001. This section, almost 200 pages, is the heart of the book and contains both wonders and longueurs (like a trip across Siberia, one guesses).
"Travel," Frazier notes early in Part III, "can be much more fun to read about than to do," and Frazier doesn't stint on the difficulties of the journey. The van he has purchased, procured by his main guide, keeps breaking down. Siberia is full of unconscionable litter and refuse. Frazier suffers the traveler's customary gastrointestinal skirmishes and the unclean foreign bathrooms where they're fought. The mosquitoes, for which Siberia is legendary, are even worse than he imagined. All of this is too much, perhaps; but so is Siberia, and the size of Part III is necessary for Frazier to convey a palpable feel for the hardy, unpredictable terrain and people that characterize life and travel on the vast Russian steppe.
The geographic and cultural remoteness of Frazier's travels also gives him perspective on America and inspires some of the best moments (and writing) in Travels in Siberia. The dearth of roadside fences in Siberia reminds him that "in America, almost all open country is fenced, and your eye automatically uses fence lines for reference the way a hand feels for a banister." After he describes evocatively the peculiar smell that is Russia's quiddity—a mixture of "diesel fuel ... cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk ... mulberries crushed into the waffle treads of heavy boots, and a lot of wet cement"—he zeroes right in our own aroma: "America smells like gift shop candles, fried food, new cars. America's is the smell of commerce."
There is historical perspective, too. For example, after considering the disastrous revolt against Nicholas I in 1825 by the Decembrists, Frazier concludes that "I have increased my respect for American's Founding Fathers and the men they led, who seem to have believed even in their unconscious that King George III of England was really no better than they were." And when the five-week, often grueling van trip begins to wear out the reader as well as Frazier, his perspective gets an up-close jolt on the very day he finally reaches the Pacific coast: Sept. 11, 2001.
A couple of days later, far from America in every way, "my thoughts about what had happened on September 11 swirled around without settling anywhere or producing any insight." But later, thinking of Siberia's age-old Mongol struggle, Frazier realizes that "the September 11 attacks would have made perfect sense to, say, Saladin: the flying machines, the proud towers, the slaughtered innocents, the suicidal believers, are a simple story that exists out of time."
This is perhaps oversimplified analysis, but it connects. So does his reaction, in Part IV, to one of the deserted prison camps where millions of Russians died under Stalin: "an overwhelming aura of absence ... unexcused, un-torn-down, unexplained ... 'No comment', the site seemed to say." In this long book, full of comment, Frazier knows when to let Siberia speak, or stay silent, for itself.