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21 November 2018

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A Dream in Polar Fog

It is a story we repeatedly en­coun­ter in fiction (Kim, Shogun) and of course in Hollywood (Dances with Wolves, Avatar, Little Big Man): an outsider encounters an aboriginal culture and learns what it means to be truly human, scorning the imperialistic culture from which he came.

But Rytkheu does not fall into the trap of easy platitudes and sentimentality. He does not whitewash the brutal existence of the native culture at the center of the novel – northeastern Siberia’s Chukchi people, and he paints both "sides" in many shades of grey. Indeed, Rytkheu is himself a Chukchi, and the focus of A Dream in Polar Fog seems less the clash of cultures than a portrayal of an utterly foreign way of life – that of a distinct, remote Siberian community before the invasion of modernity made many things easier, while washing away many things of value.

In actuality, however, the heart of this novel is an adventure tale in the best traditions of Jack London or Hemingway, and it is told in a rich, at times mesmerizing prose:

"They decided to row from shore, so that the motor’s roar did not reach the breeding ground and frighten off the animals. Steadily, the oars dipped into the heavy, viscous water, and thickly the drops plunked down, rolling down the long oar blades. Only the creaking of the oarlocks broke the silence. The people did not speak amongst themselves, and not just because each one was busy with a task of his own, but such was the old custom – hunters don’t open their mouths when there is no need."

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2010