The Island

“An Apologia for Pointless Travel”

Pyotr–my friend, my boon companion! I want you to know how the island appears. The inevitability of its emergence–how it rises from the abyss, untouched by the morning sun, as a broad gray beach reaching the horizon, beyond which a literal canopy of lush forest stretches toward the distant mountains. Or this: how it bleeds through the fog, pierced by the sharp cries of agitated gulls, as brown lowlands that spread in every direction, homeless and hopeless. Can you believe this is it, the island of my dreams? With stiffened fingers I pull a box of matches from the pocket of my puffy winter coat–I myself can’t understand how such a striking metamorphosis could take place: my eyes search the joyless shore in the vain hope I might at least spy some stubby tree, some hillock, someplace where I might catch a glimpse of the surrounding area–but there’s nothing. In our hip-waders we struggle in the shallow water, pushing our supply-laden boat: we have to turn off the motor so the propellers don’t break. Nothing for miles but shallow, cloudy water. And the fog the sun struggles to pierce. And suddenly, out of the sticky mud shoals that stretch off to our right and block our approach to the shore, an enormous flock of cackling snow geese hurl themselves into the water–and then I wake up. Icy fog that leaves your face frozen and stiff hovers above the warm glow of the fire in the iron stove next to the elbow-bend pipe that runs beneath the ceiling to dry the damp clothes hanging on the line; next to the door, where there’s usually a broom, two goose wings are hung on the wall; and on the rough-hewn table beneath the tiny window a fragrant cloud hangs over a rusty saucepan filled with freshly made soup.

And now that we’ve eaten our fill, oh boon companion, now that the vivifying warmth is spreading through our bodies, the tea-kettle is squeaking and groaning noisily on the stove, ready to boil, I would like, if you will, to philosophize a bit, because you know how it is: strong, hot tea is the best of all possible aids for philosophizing.

*

*

Hot, strong, black tea…but I say nothing. I need to say something! Watch out for circumstance, Pyotr, watch out for circumstance–circumstance, my friend, is father to fate. You can laugh all you want, but I know what I’m talking about. I have lived with the conviction that I was free to serve as my own master. And I’ve lived through events that seemed to be pure circumstance (like everyone who is young, I thought if I read another book, met another person, arrived someplace earlier or later, that something might or might not have happened to me). But later this turned out not to be the case: I did read the book I was meant to read, and I did meet the very person I was supposed to meet. In general, what separates youth from adulthood is this: the latter takes every sort of circumstantial life as it is lived and distills it into a chain of inevitabilities, until one day you realize these inevitabilities have placed you in check, and you must take definite steps to avoid checkmate. Let’s say, to light out for an island that has nothing, absolutely nothing at all, to do with you….

You don’t believe me, but it’s true! And that’s why I say to you–watch out for circumstance, Pyotr! Watch out for it, take care you don’t spill hot tea in your lap, because circumstance is the root of causation, just waiting to sprout…. Yes, yes, yes–this is what I wanted to say! The thicker the pants, the longer your leg can tolerate being scalded!

Was it circumstance that the first book I read on my own was Robinson Crusoe? You can guess how long ago that was, right? You never forget your first book, and I fell in love with mine, and that is how I fell in love with the island. Even though Robinson longed, constantly, for home, the best days of his life were those twenty-eight years he spent on an island where circumstance had tossed him, an island he eventually came to love. Yes, love! And Defoe understands this. Even more so, because he is not subjected to all the cares that weigh upon and afflict Crusoe, Defoe sings heartfelt paeans to his island, which announces itself like a verse from the Book of Genesis, dry land among the waters, like some earthly prototype for Paradise, like some metaphor for total independence and absolute individual freedom.

An island has its own poetic genealogy, just like mountains, rivers, caves, grottoes, tilled fields, and every other place which possesses a certain charm for people. Solitary, strange, secluded, secretive–these are the first words we think of when we talk about an island. The feelings islands elicit cannot be compared with those invoked by lonely mountain peaks, but they are strong all the same. Schoolboys and writers know this best–and we are no different from them, nor they from one another. All of us must bow our heads before Robert Louis Stevenson, who perfectly expressed the romantic appeal of the island in Treasure Island. Jules Verne, following Defoe and Stevenson, felt compelled to focus on the “mysterious” island by adding an element of the fantastic to his narrative, thus seducing a long line of writers who came after him, leading them down byways that would turn them into incorrigible fantasists. But the island and its allure!

The sources of this tradition: Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. Whenever Odysseus happened upon an island, its inhabitants and it were not only mysterious, but deadly. Odysseus–in Ithaka a king, but during his wanderings, every island upon which he sets foot is ruled by another, and every island is a kingdom subject to the absolute authority of its ruler (who might not necessarily be a mortal human being).

In the early Middle Ages, a new motif appeared: the quest, the irresistible longing for an island, lost or not yet discovered, somewhere in the ocean’s vastness. The course of a ship that plows the sea is set not homeward, but outward, toward that undiscovered country which presents itself as the promised land. This was the land St. Brendan the Navigator (eventually canonized for his tireless travels) sought for so many long years as he wandered the seas. Like those of Aeneas, his voyages have been likened to spiritual activity. St. Brendan even claimed to have seen the island upon which angels descend. Perhaps he did find it (although subsequent explorers who his accounts credible were never able to confirm the existence of such a place)!

During the Age of Discovery, fanciful accounts of fanciful journeys and voyages were extraordinarily popular: flights of fancy and fantasy, descriptions of elves and monsters, miraculous events and ludicrous customs, a genre that bore its greatest fruit in the merciless satires of Swift and Rabelais, who peopled their islands with dwarves, giants, Houyhnhnms, and Macreons. Utopia is itself an island, an imaginary one. Sir Thomas More wrote his satire inside out, as the image of an ideal society.

But an island! Even as depicted by a master like Anatole France, an island will not serve as mere satire. An island summons artists and poets–it draws them into its orbit like a woman, with a woman’s longing to be appreciated and adored. In 1843, Herman Melville, then an unknown author, abandoned an American whaler in the Marquesas Islands; later on, in writing Moby Dick, he revealed in this massive work a world of islands which serve as an important locus for the theme of escape. Escape from the cruel world of commercial whaling, escape from the world itself, escape from the tedium of human relationships, escape from the need to obey bourgeois laws and customs, escape from it all. The island as place of danger has been transformed into a territory necessary for survival, for seeking out genuine human relationships, for touching the grandeur of nature. First for Melville, then for Gauguin (“Noa Noa”), and finally for Rockwell Kent, who in his search for authenticity retreated further and further from civilization–to the glaciers of Greenland, to write his northern idyll Salamina.

Flight–even flight in vain, paradise never found, treasure undiscovered–is one of the topoi that sound a frightening note in the books of Melville and Gauguin, and it resounds even more in the works of two contemporary authors, where island magic produces a monstrous plot tension: John Fowles’ The Magus takes us back millennia, to the Mediterranean of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, where ancient myths lie beneath forgetful and sun-drenched daydreams, waiting to be reawakened and reanimated; and T. Coraghessan Boyle’s East Is East, the classic tale of the exile who falls into the island’s snare.

At any rate, I fell in love with the island long before I ever set foot on it. This was the first time I was trapped by circumstance. And then the second–the dream of making the journey. There is nothing particularly special about this–every little boy dreams of traveling. Of course by travel we mean: he must subject himself to danger, crawl or walk, exhaust himself with his burden and his thirst, survey the territory around him in accordance with the measurements of his own ego, bond with it, and, depending on the intensity of the relationship, give his all–his strength, his despair, his enthusiasm–and in return gain something, something I cannot name, but something tourists, who look out the windows of tour buses at the sights of Moscow, Paris, or London, as if inside an aquarium, can never share. Space affords us innumerable riches. Space makes us human….

And the justification? In the five centuries since Columbus’ discoveries, the earth has been so exhaustively studied, trampled, and described with painstaking earnestness by every random Tom, Dick, and Harry that we hardly have any chance whatsoever to experience that joy felt by the first man to set foot on some unknown shore. Reason enough for despair. With its air of deliberateness, all contemporary travel recalls Jerome K. Jerome’s three men in their boat and their voyage up the Thames, and is, in this sense, something more or less literary. But where’s the harm in resigning ourselves to this? Travel proceeds from the world of books and returns to it again–in literature and in film it is sui generis: i.e., justification enough for most people. It is the modern traveler who understands this best, be it Jacques Cousteau and his crew, for whom the “Calypso,” its very name an echo from Homer, is home; be it Reinhold Messner, who pushed himself to a solo summit of Everest; be it Michel Siffre, that dweller in the darkness of the deepest caves. All must give mankind an account of what they experienced or endured, lest they be shunned, like misers who hoard the riches of the commonweal for themselves. They must give people back their mysteries.

For two or three centuries scientists only studied what they could sort and systematize, making large-scale inventories of every known thing on earth. Thus everything on earth became known. And thus accessible. And thus mystery vanished. Whose voyage today is halted by the Pillars of Hercules? Who today would maintain that beyond the fog banks of Norway there is “neither earth nor sky”? Even the Sahara itself has surrendered to man, reduced by the Paris-Dakar rally to a giant racetrack; even the rain forests of the Amazon are defenseless against colossal technologies that rend them to pieces, that tear them up by their roots, that devour their way into the earth’s interior, to get at its seams of lead and manganese.

The loss of these mysteries is ineluctable. But do you know what the name “Calypso” means? It means “the concealed.” The 20th-century traveler goes on quest for puzzles rather than solutions, or at most, on a quest for its own sake, to save mankind from its nightmare of assumed omniscience and smug self-regard. And if you and I, my friend, were to remove ourselves from the metropolis to sit on the slick clay bank of some far-flung wetland, only to leave our own boot prints behind, we too might assay some of this magic.

But all this tea-time philosophizing has led me astray. I was talking about circumstance. Here’s the connection: having read so many books, I myself dreamed of traveling to the ends of the earth, but I had no idea where. Then I chanced upon an atlas filled with white spaces–what were they if not the shape of circumstance? Actual white spaces–how marvelous! It suddenly struck me: terra incognita, hopes, challenges, the hardships of a difficult and unprecedented ordeal–everything you face, that you alone face, guaranteed authenticity of every sensation, no more tourism as surrogate, no more television as substitutes….

It was an old and exceptionally sturdy atlas, published in Germany in 1927. Its maps of Europe, Africa, Oceania–particularly those regions and possessions which Germany once claimed–had been committed to paper with a degree of consummate detail and skill that suggested the engraving talents of a master miniaturist. And gradually the finely traced relief and contour map outlines began to fade away. The lines grew hesitant, as if the work had been turned over to the uncertain hand of an apprentice cartographer. Coastlines indicated by dotted lines, rivers fixed only at their deltas, the dots marking their course trailing off as they moved inland. An enormous lake, five times larger than Lake Geneva, the largest lake in Europe–a bare sketch. And beyond that–nothing. Whiteness. The unknown. The Taimyr peninsula: 4000 square kilometers of terra incognita.

I knew of course that 1927 was long ago, and all the white spaces on the polar atlas had been filled in. But that circumstantial atlas determined how I would fix my course. Northward. The far north remains the Far North, and no fat-assed tourist with his stupid camcorder is ever going to find himself there, capturing the “sights.” The Far North is too untamed to make allowances for our petty complacencies. It stretches far wider than the scale of our cares and our restlessness. There a person is truly small and the space surrounding him truly enormous–its lakes beyond counting, its rivers so deep, its bogs so matchlessly cold….

I knew nothing of the Far North. I was a reporter working for a newspaper: the only thing that distinguished me from my colleagues–and this was likely a negative, because it made my job increasingly painful–was my obsessive desire to make a journey of my own. I began to gag on newspapers and their trivia. I began to hate them. I sought refuge in maps, whose exotic toponyms I chanted like incantations: the Byrranga mountains, 1146 glaciered meters high. The Taimyr peninsula. Too difficult for one man with no expeditionary experience. The Sakhanin waterfalls. It all sounded so beautiful. Eighteen kilometers downriver a balok, where the accessible trail begins. But that was Novaia Zemlia. A gigantic archipelago belonging to the Ministry of Defense, a forbidden zone, the Ultima Thule of inaccessibility…. The Bay of Kolokolov, a light-house, the Chayachi Islands, the (uninhabited) village of Nizhnyj Shar…. A fascinating mixture of land and water, along with moorland, shallows, lakes, and streams. Nary a trail, nary a harbor, neither shelter, nor people. Hundreds of kilometers of icy beach. There–that was the end, the edge of the world….

I was filled with doubts about my own abilities; I worried what this space might unlock within me. But fate the temptress turned up once more and delivered me to Solovki. The Solovetskii islands enchant everyone encountering the Far North for the first time because people sick with bewitchment cannot understand the reality of what is being revealed to them. Scenes from Japanese paintings–wind-twisted pine trees, touchingly stooped birches, meadows overgrown with wildflower, and peat bogs and pine barrens and the open spaces of the tundra, yellow and gray lichen seeping like foamy milk around the hard nodules of the boulders against the rubicund skin of the tundra. All of this, the abandoned churches mirrored against the dark surface of the lake accompanying those who steer their boats down the monk-dug canals, into the island’s interior–spellbound visitors take all this at face value, believing it to be the true Far North.

We saw this on TV too, right, Petya? The chateaux of France, the Carnaval in Rio, everyday life among the mangroves of Borneo, nightfall on the African savannah–all of it immediately accessible and all the more worthless because of it. This is why people can no longer see or grasp that the Solovki are special: where untroubled by any thought of danger, Savvaty and Zosima in their tiny boats made landfall, where the marvelous is refined to the most rapturous, as if the Lord had unspooled this little speck of earth like some kind of film, specially created by Him with an eye toward contemplation and prayer. But nothing here catches the eye: no buildings whose windows look out onto the landscape, no churches to adorn an inlet, an islet, a still harbor. Of course, the Solovki are sky-blue gems, cut and polished to a celestial purity by five centuries of human contact. Might not the rest of the Far North be similar, the sky blazing like a firebird in the summer, the lichen-covered stones glowing against the tundra.

I didn’t understand this yet. The moment I got off the steamer in Arkhangel’sk, I hurried off to look at the shipping schedules to see which destination would present itself to me. After the Solovki it had become clear: the Far North had made the greatest impression on my life–and I would have to voyage there. Exactly where, I didn’t know, but the route of the steamer “Yushar” appealed to me: Arkhangel’sk – Nar’yan-Mar, calling on Kolguev. It took the ferry just one day to reach the island, leaving the almost primeval wilderness of the mainland behind. But, I thought, an island, particularly a good-sized island in the middle of the Barents Sea, is exactly what I need….

What sort of a dream is a good dream? A dream that doesn’t come true. It lives deep within our hearts and fills us with hope. I returned to Moscow. In the everyday bustle I quickly forgot about the island. But circumstance had done its work: I only needed to wait until I could set out and accomplish what had been ordained for me.

Trust in fate, Petya, and throw another log on the fire! Kindling crackling in the stove, cheerful shoots of flame flaring from the wood chips, the roaring stovepipe: what doesn’t come true at first is still fated to be.

Believe me, I played for time as long as I could. I quit my job as a journalist, I went out to Kamchatka and signed up as a ship’s mate on a fishing trawler. The day before the ship cast off, my fear got the better of me and I ran for dry land….

I had come to the conclusion that sitting in the brig of some rusting, floating fish factory would be nothing like plowing the sea on some fateful La Perouse expedition. Which was true. But, strangely enough, my inability to change my life, and, as it turned out, my lack of interest in doing so, had an even more oppressive and depressing effect on me. It turned out I only knew how to do things journalists do: make phone calls, track down sources and quotations, smoke, drink coffee, all the while wearing the face of someone who knows everything and always has the inside scoop, an expert on everything who sees the world as an assortment of subjects either fit for publication or unfit for publication…. I would go home in the evening, beaten down. I didn’t have the slightest idea how I might make my dream come true.

Several years passed. Everything in my life went wrong. I got divorced. I tried to advance my career: I took a job at one of the most prestigious newspapers in Russia, I wrote serious articles. My editors praised me, but I was sickened by my own seriousness, by the language I was using, which sounded when it was printed up like the language of some boring old fart.

Readers who wrote to the paper assumed I was in my forties at least. I was twenty-seven.

I realized I was aging, I was dying. I was gripped by fear.

One night I was sitting in the kitchen with a friend of mine, drinking wine, attempting to escape my fear. I started talking. I said: no reason to despair, there’s still a chance for us to live our lives like men: the island. We would have to make our way there. We would have to see everything: Mount Paarkov, Lake Krivoye, the Gusinaya River, the sacred hills….

My friend listened to me carefully. He raised his heavy eyelids and looked me in the eye:

“Bullshit. There’s no such island….”

*

*

How could I argue with him? I unpacked a large-scale map and paid closer attention to the island of my hopes. What drew me in immediately was its formal perfection: almost perfectly round, a little dented at the edges, like a coin worn smooth. A swath of green–flat. A couple of streams, of course, and lakes and hills. Strange open sandy areas…. Everything one might need for a small-scale model of the world.

To the south and east, like two spindly crab claws, long narrow sand spits stretching out to sea, the Ploskiye Koshki, the flat cats. On the southern spit a drawing of an izba–maybe a fishing or hunting shack? Suddenly I felt an overwhelming desire to be there, in that hut, between heaven and earth, nothing to see except the rough sea all around, nothing to hear except the cries of birds…. I wanted to be forced to stay there for a week, for a month. To hunker down. “To die from myself.”

I wanted to run away forever–but it would have been enough just to go there. You wouldn’t believe it, Petya, but another two years went by before this could happen. How can anyone claim that Odysseus, detained for seven years by the nymph Calypso, a captive to his indecision, bore no resemblance to us in his doubts?

I wanted to explore my island with someone else; I thought it would be easy to find a traveling companion. In fact, most of my friends responded with delight at first to an invitation to take part in a proper boreal odyssey. Then the questions began: What will we see? What’s there? Can we make a film? Write a photo essay? What about? What about, besides nature?

I didn’t have answers for their questions. I had given it so little thought. I didn’t realize the time for traveling “just because” was over. Which was why most of them thought the idea of the island was pure foolishness, a complete waste of time. But, of course, they were unable to conceive of it as I did. Then came the putsch of August 1991, and the attention of both writers and readers was utterly absorbed by the events that followed, all the way up to 1993. Any attempt of mine to direct my colleagues’ gaze toward the island merely irritated them.

Until one of my colleagues from Literaturnaia gazeta, an outstanding journalist, having listened to my lament one too many times, gave me a derisively merciless smirk:

“You’ve been going on about this island of yours for so long you’re never going to go there,” she said.

And I saw the light.

I called Arkhangel’sk; I found out the Arkhangel’sk – Nar’yan-Mar line had been canceled. And all plane tickets to Nar’yan-Mar were sold out. There was just the train, to Pechora, the end of the line, and then downstream by boat to Nar’yan-Mar, the oldest route, the route the pioneers who were the first to break through to the Far North took….

I bought a train ticket and left. Alone. I made no plans–which was of course not without consequences. I had some fine-ground coffee, “Alvorada,” a German brand, over-roasted, unpleasant, pure shit, like filterless Gitanes–in this sense, I was no more poorly tricked out than the Superman on the commercial for Camel cigarettes. But I left my winter jacket at home–I thought I could get away with just a thick sweater and a raincoat….

You know, it was silly, but I just felt that–that later on I might not be able to make up my mind, that for all time I would remain an overqualified critic of progress. That I would never make my journey, never have my say, never even know what my say was….

Do you know what it means to have your say, Petya?

Petya!

You’ve been asleep for a while–you know that, don’t you?

Sleep. I’ve captured this island. Alone. And now, now I can share it with you, share it like bread. I give it to you: its brown clay shoals that poke out of the sea at ebb-tide like Earth’s primeval surface, its numberless flocks of geese, its rivers, its streams, its snows of yesteryear and its valleys surrounded by hills covered with forget-me-nots, all the delights on which a soul might feed, all the deadly fatigue that overcomes it, that wraps it in darkness, even though summer here knows no night. You sleep–which is to say you accept this gift. From now on, the island will be part of your fate, a ring, perhaps, hung heavy with other keys, keys that will open other doors, at other ends of this world….

Bios

Vasilii Golovanov

Vasilii Golovanov has been compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, Defoe, and Stevenson by Russian critics. He is one of the world’s great practitioners of creative nonfiction. A novelist, journalist, and photographer, Golovanov was born in Moscow in 1960, the son of the journalist Iaroslav Golovanov. A graduate of the school of journalism at Moscow State University, he has spent his literary career as a reporter and correspondent for Russian newspapers and magazines such as Literaturnaia gazeta, ​O​bshchaia gazeta,​ O​gonek,​ N​ovaia iunost’,​ S​tolitsa,​and Vokrugsveta, ​as well as literary journals such as Novyi mir​, Druzhba narodov, ​Znamia, ​and O​ktiabr’.​ During his career he has reported from throughout the former Soviet Union, particularly conflict and crisis zones in the South and North Caucasus, in Central Asia, the Russian Arctic, and Kamchatka. A self-described practitioner of “geopoetics,” Golovanov has published five books.

Adam Siegel

Adam Siegel is a writer and translator from Central and Eastern European languages. He holds degrees from the Defense Language Institute, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Berkeley, and San José State University. His translations of authors such as Vasilii Golovanov, Viktor Shklovskij, Hubert Fichte, Hans Henny Jahnn, Thomas Bernhard, and others have been published or are forthcoming in venues such as Conjunctions, Context, InTranslation/The Brooklyn Rail, B O D Y, Dalkey Archive, and Solar Luxuriance. His translation of Hedda Gabler was staged by the Art Theater of Davis in 2014. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in venues such as Solar Luxuriance, Streetnotes, XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics, ActionYes, Caketrain, and elsewhere. He is languages and literatures bibliographer at the University of California, Davis.

Ostrov, ili, Opravdanie bessmyslennykh puteshestvii. Copyright (c) Vasilii Golovanov, 2002. English translation copyright (c) Adam Siegel, 2015.