Synopses & Reviews
One of today's most intrepid writers chronicles a deadly trek through
the legendary region that gave birth to the gulag and gave Siberia its
outsize reputation for perilous isolation.
In a custom-built boat, Jeffrey Tayler travels some 2,400 miles down
the Lena River from near Lake Baikal to high above the Arctic Circle,
recreating a journey first made by Cossack forces more than three
hundred years ago. He is searching for primeval beauty and a respite
from the corruption, violence, and self-destructive urges that typify
modern Russian culture, but instead he finds the roots of that
culture in Cossack villages unchanged for centuries, in Soviet
outposts full of listless drunks, in stark ruins of the gulag, and in
grand forests hundreds of miles from the nearest hamlet.
That's how far Tayler is from help when he realizes that his
guide, Vadim, a burly Soviet army veteran embittered by his experiences
in Afghanistan, detests all humanity, including Tayler. Yet he needs
Vadim's superb skills if he is to survive a voyage that quickly
turns hellish. They must navigate roiling whitewater in howling storms,
but they eschew life jackets because, as Vadim explains, the frigid
water would kill them before they could swim to shore. Though Tayler
has trekked by camel through the Sahara and canoed down the Congo
during the revolt against Mobutu, he has never felt so threatened as he
Review by Tom Bissell
In his fifth book, Tayler returns to the Siberian hinterlands of Russia, the country where he has lived for the past 11 years and of which he wrote in Siberian Dawn. This time, however, he struggles 2,400 miles up the Lena River in an inflatable raft with his guide (and bane) Vadim, an ill-tempered veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tayler follows the likely route that the Cossacks who embody 'the best and worst' of the Russian spirit took in the 16th century, when they annexed much of Siberia for Ivan the Terrible. It was a hard trip then; it is a hard trip now.
Tayler, a freakish polyglot who speaks eight languages, is unique among contemporary travel writers. Despite his fondness for death-prowled lands, he rarely complains and never falls prey to self-aggrandizement. The Lena River, however, very nearly undoes him. After a pleasant spell, the temperature drops, bad weather rolls in and soon Tayler is gagging on clouds of mosquitoes and shooing wasplike horseflies all of which is grippingly described. 'In more than two decades of travel,' he writes, 'I had never... hit this nadir of gloom.' Along the way, he and Vadim come ashore to find devastated villages, teenagers dancing away in surreal Arctic discotheques, Soviet irredentists flying the hammer and sickle, drunken Russians and aboriginal people, Baptist missionaries, Yakut shamans (one of whom has his own Web site) and, in what is perhaps the book's most moving interlude, some of the last of Siberia's Volga Germans.
The many incidental pleasures of this harrowing if sometimes repetitive book are chiefly literary and sociological. Tayler is good at describing the summer Siberian sky ('a glowing canopy of lavender'), and his thoughts on Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is adored by the very people for whom he provides the least, offers the American reader some borscht for thought about the appeal of their own benighted leader. About halfway through, the book catches fire when Tayler's patience ruptures beneath Vadim's shower of abuse. Movingly, Tayler and Vadim neither become friends nor grow to 'understand' each other.
This is a book about survival, and Tayler's observations are as bracing, and sometimes shocking, as a lungful of Arctic air: 'Had any other people on earth,' he writes of the Russians, 'done so much to destroy itself?' Tayler's Siberia is unremittingly depressing, and the book concludes with little hope for its people or its culture. As a sympathetic but clear-eyed portrait of an unhappy but beautiful land, River of No Reprieve will be a difficult book to surpass. (July 11)
Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. His new book, The Father of All Things, will be published early next year." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Thanks to Tayler's keen powers of observation, readers will relish this trip of high adventure." Booklist
"This engaging travel narrative mixes history with the author's personal desire to understand the region and its people." Library Journal
"An evocative glimpse of an isolated, seldom visited part of Russia." Kirkus Reviews
"Reading this exciting, engaging book gave me an adrenaline rush." Spencer Rumsey, Newsday
"Tayler occasionally boils over with self-importance, but much of his prose is an appealing mix of nature description, dialogue, history and personal musing." Seattle Times
"For all its sadness, this remains a book well worth reading. It will make you grateful for all that you forget that you have." Christian Science Monitor
"There are better writers than Tayler, but they haven't traveled from one end of the Lena to the other; until they do, I'll take River of No Reprieve." Baltimore Sun
"Tayler takes a 2,400-mile journey down the Lena River to the arctic circle, through villages, nightclubs, and former gulags, exposing the joys and horrors of modern Siberian life....It's a portrait of a ruggedly beautiful and politically influential land, an alien place you'd probably never want to visit." Ben Hughes, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
In a custom-built boat, Jeffrey Tayler traveled some 2,400 miles down the Lena River, from near Lake Baikal to high above the Arctic Circle, re-creating a journey first made by Cossack forces more than three hundred years ago. He was searching for primeval beauty and a respite from the corruption, violence, and self-destructive urges that typify modern Russian culture.
His only companion on this hellish journey detests all humanity, including Tayler. Vadim, Taylers guide, is a burly Soviet army veteran whose superb skills Tayler needs to survive. As the two navigate roiling white water in howling storms, they eschew lifejackets because the frigid water would kill them before they could swim to shore. Though Tayler has trekked by camel through the Sahara and canoed down the Congo during the revolt against Mobutu, he has never felt as threatened as he does on this trip.
About the Author
Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, Harper's Magazine, and National Geographic. He has written four books, most recently Angry Wind. An accomplished linguist, he is fluent in Russian, Arabic, French, and Modern Greek and can get by in Spanish and Turkish.