Book: White Fever by Jacek Hug0-Bader, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (published in Polish in 2009, but NEW in English translation, 2012)
Despite the fact that Jacek Hugo-Bader writes the kind of travelogue that makes you feel that you’re right there with him, and have met a constellation of interesting (if sometimes revolting) people, White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia, definitely did not tempt me to follow in his footsteps.
You’ve read the road trip books. You’ve read the adventures into remote regions books. You’ve read the books where the author puts himself in mortal danger for your enjoyment. All those elements are here.
For his 50th birthday, Hugo-Bader, a Polish journalist, decides to treat himself to drive across a continent. He had been inspired in his youth by the movie Vanishing Point (link to film trailer on You Tube), a 1970’s American film in which the hero drove across America. He says,
Finally here was a chance to make a dream of my youth come true, and just like him, drive alone across an entire continent, except that my one was two -and-a-half-times bigger than America, there was no road beyond Chita, and I was insisting on going in winter.
This is a treat?
As he travels, he refers to a utopian futuristic book written in 1975 in the Soviet Union depicting life in that country at the 90th anniversary of the Great Socialist October Revolution-2007. His trip proves that the future was not all that it was cracked up to be, even if you set aside that fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists.
In the first two chapters Hugo-Jacek had me laughing out loud, as he enumerated the dangers awaiting him on the road and the necessary preparations. For instance the cold will freeze the oil in the lines of the car. If you don’t take the battery inside at night, it will be frozen. If you don’t sleep on top of it, it will be stolen. Bad roads, towns far apart, people so afraid of bandits they will not stop to help you in an emergency if it is after dark, “hotels” that rival the horrors of 17th century stage stops. You may look forward to a “rest stop” at a restaurant, but don’t count on them having a toilet. Instead everyone goes out back in the snow.
And then there’s law enforcement. (Snigger.) Be prepared to bribe your way out of all sorts of situations. In one place, the author gets stuck in a line of traffic behind two very slow trucks on a hill. The solid center line forbids any passing. But that does not stop the motorists. However, at the top of the hill there’s the militiamen.
His colleague was stopping everyone who had done the same as I had. There were several dozen cars on the hard shoulder. Everyone was handing over a bribe of 1000 roubles each without protest, because in Russia for overtaking on a solid line you can lose your licence for six months.
So far, par for the course, but then he says:
But a few hundred meters later I stopped and looked back. The convoy with the broken-down lorry had just lumbered up to the highest point. There it quickly turned around, drove back down, turned around and, occasionally overtaken by other cars, started its laborious climb up the hill again.
This is the black humor that pervades today’s Siberia and guarantees that the place is crowded with incredible characters–some truly certifiable, some on drugs, but most just sloshing in vodka–perhaps hallucinating in the state known as white fever.
He interviews people in an area of Kazakhstan where the Russians carried out underground atomic tests. He tells us that the herders drove their animals into a bomb crater to drink the water–then gave the milk to their children, and ate the meat of the animals. The radiation in that spot is 4000 times normal. Once the bomb testing ended, the farmers and herders could not make a living, so they now crawl into those underground tunnels and strip out the copper wire and sell it. When he decides to explore those tunnels, they tell him that first, of course, you must drink vodka, because that will protect you from the sickness. Sounds a lot like Martin Cruz Smith’s novel about Chernobyl.
And then there is the religious revolution. There are many oddball religions in Russia and numerous reincarnations of Christ in Siberia. Hugo-Jacek spends a few days at the village being created by one of them. It provides a nice break from the violence and drunkenness on the road, since everyone lives peacefully. Any American woman would flee in a hurry upon learning from one of the women in the community:
‘The Teacher said oncological diseases in women come from a bad attitude to men,’ she says, scraping bits of dry skin from between her husband’s toes.’from silly women talking offence, sulking and being disobedient. And from feminism. I was like that too. I was forty-four, and I was still living alone, just for myself, selfishly.’
Although he does not spend many words on the landscape, we meet many different kinds of people. The author spends an extended period of time with one of the indigenous groups and their shamans. Shamans are very popular, and very similar to American Indian healers. I had no idea there were so many indigenous people in Russia, assuming they had long ago been absorbed into the larger population.
According to the 2002 census, there are 35,500 Evenks, but barely 15 per cent of them know their own language. It is one of the bigger nations, because for example there are only 237 of the Enets left, twelve Alutors, and eight Kereks; of the remaining 346 Oroks barely three can speak their own language, and none of the 276 Taz can. (This suggests another possibility for Helena Drysdale, who wrote Mother Tongue about disappearing languages in Europe.)
I learned a great deal about Russia and Siberia both today and in the past from this 55-day trip across 12,968 kilometers (7890 miles). Although some of the people he met–like the inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle–remain dedicated Communists, Hugo-Jacek is strongly anti-communist and does not shrink from challenging his interviewees. He is a magnificent reporter and the book is a delight (even when he is talking about disgusting subjects). But I’m not going there. Would you?
Notes: There are links to Amazon in this post. I’m an Amazon affiliate, so when you follow those links to do your Amazon shopping, you are helping A Traveler’s Library. Other links lead to past posts at this website. The publishers sent me this book to review, but my opinions are my own.
Thanks to the generous photographers who allow their photos to be used under Creative Commons license. You can click on the photos to learn more at Flickr.com.