Robson Book (2006), 261 pages
I’ve never visited Russia but hope to make it there someday. Once, on the way to Japan, I flew over Siberia and I spent over an hour staring, spellbound, at the gleaming white landscape below. Rivers and roads cut through the whiteness and joined the dots of small settlements and larger towns. The Trans-Siberian Railway is perhaps the most famous, and most attractive, rail route in the world. I occasionally fantasise about taking the train to Vladivostok and then boarding a ship to Japan.
River of White Nights: A Siberian River Odyssey charts Jeffrey Tayler’s boat trip from Irkutsk up the Lena River and into the Arctic Circle. Tayler employs a river guide called Vadim to help in his expedition up the river. However Tayler and Vadim seem to spend most of the trip irritating each other. The failure of their relationship is one of a number of issues I have with this book. The hostility between Tayler and Vadim (although it seems this is mostly fuelled by Vadim’s machismo) results in the reader beginning to dislike the pair of them.
Tayler is on firmer ground when he explores the towns that dot the riverbank. Tayler’s interactions with the locals provide an illuminating insight into the decline post-Soviet Russia. This is especially true of Siberian towns that depended on subsidised industries for their survival. Tayler paints a largely bleak picture of towns mired in alcoholism, corruption, and an indifferent central government. The author is married to a Russian woman and speaks fluent Russian so he is better able to find out the details of Siberian life. However some of the interactions are too brief and their content too flimsy to justify inclusion in the book.
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the book is the author’s regular ogling of young women. Maybe he is just being honest but the constant references to the toned bodies of young women begins to grate quite rapidly. For example, Tayler refers to a bargirl, “in her midteens leaned on her elbows, smiling, beatifically, her chin on her palms. Raven bangs curled over an alabaster forehead and topaz eyes, longer locks fell astride dimpled cheeks; her cutoff T-shirt exposed a taut belly. She looked as innocent as she was delectable.” (p.73-74) Less than a page later he describes, “three Russian girls in their midteens chatted…their breasts shoved up high in their low-cut blouses by turbo bras, their slacks clinging to long slender legs, their makeup caked and glistening in the heat.” (p.74-75) That such lines could have been written less than a decade ago in a book trying to be taken seriously is incredible.
River of White Nights has moments of insight but Colin Thubron’s In Siberia and Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia are far superior.