Saturday, September 5, 2020

With Dersu the Hunter: a review

Having watched Dersu Uzala as part of my (post-)Soviet film series on THAO, I decided to actually read the book. It is bad form, I do realise, to watch the movie before reading the book – but in my defence, it is a Kurosawa film. The book, With Dersu the Hunter: Adventures in the Taiga, was written by Vladimir Klavdievich Arsen’ev, a White Army officer who later served in the socialist government of the Far Eastern Republic (Dal’nevostochnaya Republika) as a commissar for ethnic-minority affairs. As a surveyor for the White Army, Arsen’ev was an avid naturalist and an amateur ethnographer, and his adventures in the Ussuri taiga with the Hezhen hunter and trapper Dersu Uzala became an overnight classic of Russian nature literature and attained broad publication, including in English. The version I read was the clothbound 1965 George Braziller edition, translated by Victor Shneerson and adapted by Anne Terry White.

Firstly: it is a travelogue, and a naturalist’s firsthand account of the wild places – previously unexplored by Russians – of the Far East: the areas of Ussuri – now the Khabarovskii and Primorskii kraya – bordering the Chinese province of Heilongjiang. His account is laden with painstaking, beautifully-inked maps, as well as sketches of the flora and fauna he observed in his travels. Equally painstaking are the prose descriptions – of birch forests, of blizzards and windstorms, of wapiti in breeding season, of bears and tigers, of flying squirrels, of wild fowl, of seals and sea lions on the rocky coast. Secondly: the book is a stunningly-intricate ethnographical account of a borderland region peopled by Korean, Chinese, Udege and Hezhen people, plagued by pirates and Japanese invaders. At best, law is administered informally by trusted militia leaders like Arsen’ev’s Chinese friend Chen Pao, who leads a mixed baojia of Chinese and Udege enforcers. At worst, it is governed by warlordism, racketeering and ethnic feuding, with entire villages often discriminating against outsiders and warding off or even hunting their neighbours.

Thirdly, though: it is a touching biographical portrait of a beautiful human being with a beautiful soul – Dersu Uzala himself, a member of the Hezhe people [also called Nanai, or Goldy in Russian] with keen powers of observation, quick reasoning and dauntless compassion. Despite losing his wife and all his children to smallpox, he does not allow his experiences to embitter him, but instead lives lightly upon the taiga and helps the people he meets. He treats everyone, everything – including animals, birds, trees, water, even firewood – as if it were a human being with a soul. Though he must, and does, hunt and kill to survive, he honours even what he kills and does not waste anything.

Dersu Uzala

Arsen’ev’s account would not work, without his having both a trained naturalist’s eye – a desire to be objective and fair – and also a thoroughly- and beautifully-Russian sense of humility himself. He does not see himself at all as superior to the places and people he studies, even when they are hostile to him. Instead, even when he is brought up short against his own cultural biases, he seeks to understand and to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. At times he is startled by many of his own habits and blind spots, for example as he struggles to understand Dersu’s worldview and life. He does not understand at first why Dersu leaves little packages of rice and salt and stacks of firewood in empty huts in the taiga. But then when Dersu explains that these things might save the life of the next hunter or fugitive who happens upon the hut, Arsen’ev marvels that this seems to him like basic compassion and hospitality.

We are thus taken with Arsen’ev’s descriptions of the harsh beauties of the taiga, but we are not spared his account also of the dangers and hardships he and his men faced. In several places the men faced starvation as they were on uncharted territory or, in one case, the boat with their supplies got blown off course all the way to Sakhalin, leaving them stranded. We can feel the gnawing hungers of his men as they are forced to subsist upon old fish-heads discarded by a bear. The famous scene in the film where Dersu and Arsen’ev are caught together out on a frozen lake as a harsh blizzard is brewing, and must race against the clock to cut enough grass for a makeshift shelter before it hits and they freeze to death – that actually happened. Arsen’ev details both the cold and the fear, the work that Dersu did most of (and pushed him to do) in building the hut. Likewise, the incident where Dersu pushes Arsen’ev off an out-of-control raft in a billowing rapids, to save him and get him ashore, before the Udege themselves save him: this is something that Arsen’ev also recounts in the book.

However, as Arsen’ev’s friendship with Dersu grows, Dersu begins to lose his eyesight, and he is afraid that he can no longer survive in the taiga as a hunter without the ability to use a rifle effectively. In addition, we learn that in his youth, Dersu killed a tiger – something which he believed to have been a great sin that will eventually catch up to him. In the shamanic worldview of the Manchus as well as their kissing-cousins the Evenkil, the Daur and the Hezhen, overhunting and killing certain sorts of holy animals are wicked and hubristic sins against nature, and they carry with them their own form of punishment. We see this in the oral tradition of the Tale of the Nišan Shamaness, in the judgement of the gods of the mountain against the hunter Sergudai whose soul she sets out to retrieve.

Dersu moves into the city, but finds that city life does not agree with him. He sees no appeal to living within four walls. He cannot adapt to Russian law’s expectations of him. For example, he is not allowed to shoot his rifle within city limits, or cut down trees for firewood. He is morally, even religiously incensed at the fact that people actually buy and sell water and wood – in his mind, these things are first of all the stuff of life, and the gifts of God, which should be available to all without having to exchange money for them. In the end, he decides to return to the taiga. However, on the road he is murdered by thieves who steal his rifle and the contents of his knapsack. Arsen’ev is stricken by Dersu’s death, and even somewhat blames himself for having brought Dersu to Khabarovsk in the first place.

Despite its many facets, being an exploration of the natural and social worlds of the Russian Far East and that section of the Tea Road, as well as an exploration of the personality of a gentle spirit and cunning hunter such as Dersu, With Dersu the Hunter is a book which expresses the same love of naturalistic detail and painstaking observation of the physical environs that we find in Sergei Aksakov’s book The Family Chronicle, to which it may be considered something of a spiritual successor in this sense. But Arsen’ev sees himself as something of a kindred spirit to James Fenimore Cooper and his own account of Dersu Uzala as being akin to The Last of the Mohicans – evidently unaware that Cooper unfortunately just plain made a lot of his narrative up under the influence of sunstroke, rather than observing anything firsthand. It is possibly more apt to compare his books with those of Robert Louis Stevenson and Lawrence Durrell, both of whom cut their teeth on similar travelogue accounts of exploratory expeditions and naturalistic endeavours.

In any event, this is a book well-suited to adults and young adults alike, and particularly young men of an exploratory and adventurous bent. I highly recommend it as such. As an introduction to the intricate, complex, sometimes violent, indisputably harsh, but at the same time wildly beautiful territory of the Russian Far East and the Chinese Northeast, it also serves its use well. And of course, as a biographical portrait of its eponym, no man could ask for a more touching or immortal epitaph than this. The beauty of soul of this Hezhen hunter shines through in every chapter.

Vladimir Arsen’ev

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