March 16, 2009

Dersu Uzala

1923 memoir
written by Vladimir Arsenyev

(my review of the 1975 film adaptation)

Between the years 1902 and 1907, famed explorer Vladimir Arsenyev led three expeditions along Russia's Eastern border with China, to map out the wildlife, fauna, and native villages. On each of those occasions, he met a native guide by the name of Dersu Uzala. The two quickly became great friends.

To be honest, I was expecting this to be a much dryer read than it was, with long-winded lectures of all the various topographical features of an area, but Arsenyev keeps his descriptions brisk and gives us just enough to paint a picture without losing the flow of the narrative. The flip-side of the coin, though, is that he keeps his characters just as brisk. Not only are the other men in the expedition rarely named and never explored, but Arsenyev never gives an account of who he himself is. I know this is cobbled together from his journals, but in the process of building a book, was it really so hard to either add an introductory preface or layer in some bits of history here and there? By glossing over these things, the story looses some context.

But as uninterested as the author seems with himself and his men, Arsenyev sure did grow fond of Dersu, because he's the only character described in great detail, from his appearance to his beliefs to his traditions and life story, and it's not hard to see why this lovable wiseman of the woods made such a fond impression.

While I thought it was lacking in parts, this was still a good book which not only taught me much about a region I'm totally unfamiliar with, but explored a wonderful friendship that bridges the cultural divide.


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