Rytkheu’s Fog Dream.

I just finished a book I never really expected to read, Yuri Rytkheu’s 1969 Сон в начале тумана [Dream at the beginning of fog]. I knew Rytkheu was “the father of Chukchi literature,” but frankly I had no interest in Chukchi literature, and I expected his novels to be a mashup of ethnographic detail and standard socialist-realist tropes. I do enjoy a good tale of Arctic adventure, so that was alluring, but I had also read that the hero tries to teach the Chukchi literacy and bring them into the modern world, which was exactly the sort of thing that made me tired just to think about. What pushed me over the edge was learning that Chingiz Aitmatov (see this post) was accused of plagiarism by people who claimed that his famous И дольше века длится день (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years) was “substantially similar” to the Rytkheu novel. OK, that does it, I thought, I have to read it and see what it’s all about. So I did, and I’m glad of it.

Mind you, it’s not a Great Novel in either the Flaubert/Nabokov or Tolstoy/Dostoevsky sense; it’s just a good story well told, and anyone who likes accounts of protagonists overcoming apparently fatal handicaps and thriving in difficult circumstances will enjoy it, especially if they have a fondness for tales of the frozen North. And I’m happy to say that the business about teaching literacy and bringing the Chukchi into the modern world is a complete lie — there’s nothing like that in the novel I read, which is the exact opposite (the hero adopts and defends Chukchi culture), and I suspect it may describe the sequel, Иней на пороге [Frost on the threshold], which came out the following year. It wouldn’t surprise me if Soviet officialdom said “Look, pal, it’s all very well to praise the local way of life when the alternative was tsarist oppression, but you’d better make it clear that Soviet life was a necessary improvement.” But somebody will have to tell me if that’s so, because I’m not about to read it.

At any rate, the story is about John MacLennan, a Canadian sailor on an ice-bound ship in the Arctic Ocean in 1910, who is badly injured and left with the natives; at first appalled by his situation, he adapts to it, marries and has kids, learns to value the local worldview above the one he grew up with, and defends it against attempts by rapacious merchants to encroach on it. The final scene (somewhat mawkish, unlike the rest of the book) makes it clear he insists on staying — he has chosen his people. That scene is set in 1918: the locals are aware the Bolsheviks have taken control in far-off Russia, but nobody knows what that means, and there is no propaganda inserted to explain what a glorious event it is. The book is largely taken up with John’s struggle to learn the Chukchi methods of survival and convincing descriptions of the harsh environment they have to contend with; you end by deeply respecting the people who make their living there, as you are meant to. And since Rytkheu was Chukchi himself, you never have that queasy feeling you do when reading even the best-informed and best-intentioned fiction by outsiders trying to put you and themselves into the minds of “primitive” peoples; everyone here is absolutely convincing, even if there isn’t much psychological depth.

Oh, and the title: “Son” is the Chukchi attempt to pronounce “John,” and the name of the woman he marries, Pylmau, means ‘beginning of fog’; furthermore, “dream at the beginning of fog” is said to be an expression meaning a dream you barely remember when it’s over, so it’s multivalent. I should add that the book has been translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse as A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006), so you don’t have to read Russian to take the ride.

For anyone who doesn’t care about Arctic fiction but does care about the factuality of published books: Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It?, by Emma Copley Eisenberg. Read it and weep (though there are some encouraging signs). When I was a copyeditor, I routinely checked facts and quotes that I felt like checking, but of course that’s a very different thing from being paid to go through a text with a fine-toothed comb, checking every single thing — I have infinite respect for the people who do that well.


  1. I should check him out. I first heard about him in Farley Mowat’s The Siberians, and once I realized what tripe that was I assumed Rythkheu was something like that too.

    P.S.: Chukchi rytgėv/рытгэв [ɹǝtɣeβ] means ‘forgotten’ per WP, and was originally his given name.

  2. ə de vivre says

    How much does the narrative engage with white-savior tropes? That is, on the face of it, your summary sounds similar to Dances with Wolves or Avatar—a white hero uses his Great Western Mind to organize the natives who can’t protect themselves without him and fends off the Bad Whites in a journey of white-centred self-discovery. But since the author was himself Chukchi, there’s also a kind of cultural revenge fantasy narrative that shows indigenous culture as being valuable enough to assimilate a westerner rather than the other way round. Do either of those readings fit with the actual book (I feel like I could write a long review of the book I’m imagining it to be…)? I wonder how familiar Rytkheu would have been with these white-savior adventure stories? Could he be consciously playing with those tropes or did he independently invent the genre just because of the ambient pressures of colonialism on indigenous people?

  3. Oh, he was definitely familiar with them, and he clearly takes pleasure in turning them on their head. There’s no hint that John is saving anybody, except to the extent that he says discouraging things to outside profit-seekers (which does no good whatever); to the contrary, it’s the locals who save him, and he repeatedly insists that their culture is superior to his and doesn’t need modernizing. It’s very satisfying from that point of view.

  4. ə de vivre says

    Very cool! The book sounds fascinating as a cultural object. I may have to read it rather that just speculate about what it could be…

  5. Do it!

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    From the second link:

    “The larger the mistake,” the author Susannah Cahalan told me, “the harder it is for the writer to see it.”

    A principle that generalises widely …

  7. Your description sounds entirely unlike what I remember of Aitmatov’s novel, not that there are not lots of ways to plagiarize.

    Aitmatov has a superb passage from the point of view of a sturgeon, and other good ones from other animals – fox, camel, eagle. If any of that is in Rytkheu, well, there we go.

  8. Nope, no animal POV. I suspect it was a straight-up slander.

  9. John Cowan says

    The worst typos are in headlines.

  10. The most obvious typos are in headlines. The worst typos are hidden in the text (“now” for “not” is a classic).

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Nothing to do with fog, but Savage Chickens is doing a linguistics theme this week which people might appreciate 🙂

  12. Savage Chickens is doing a linguistics theme this week which people might appreciate


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