Posted on July 12, 2021
Stuck in a hot place this summer? Escape to snowy Siberia in Yuri Rytkheu's "A Dream in Polar Fog," translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse. This novel excerpt tells the story of John MacLennan, a Canadian sailor who had a terrible accident in the Bering Strait, and is now being treated by a Chukchi shaman.
Like the best literary escapes, "A Dream" gives readers new ways of looking at their own circumstances. Rytkheu, himself an indigenous Chukchi, incisively portrays the corrosive prejudices that prevent MacLennan from understanding the people who are trying to help him. Julia Trubikhina writes in her introduction:
Fear, prejudice, the inherently “patronizing” sense of superiority of a white westerner looking down on his indigenous companions Toko and Orvo as “primitives” and “savages,” eventually gives way to understanding and empathy, as MacLennan realizes that his ship has left him behind. He will be forced to settle among the Chukchi and cope with his own handicap in a new land. As readers, we have the first glimpse of such understanding when, in the middle of his surgical amputation, he recognizes that the “hideous face” of the shaman woman looks at him “with untold tenderness.”
The story also depicts the kind of willful blindness and failure to learn from indigenous cultures that continues to this day, perhaps contributing to the climate issues the world is currently facing. With this in mind, the WWB Campus team took some additional time to assemble resources for learning about Chukchi culture. You can find a video of Chukchi music, a photo essay depicting Chukchi life, and even a relevant TED talk in the Context and Playlist tabs next to the story.