BOOK REVIEW / Doctor in the Penal Colony: Robert Shannan Peckham enjoys a re-issue of Chekhov's travel book. 'A Journey to Sakhalin' - Anton Chekhov; Tr. Brian Reeve: Ian Faulkner, 8.95 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CHEKHOV's account of the three months he spent on the convict island of Sakhalin in 1890 focuses attention on an often neglected aspect of his personality. Unlike the popular image of the invalid writer, portrayed in late photographs as a sallow, bespectacled figure in a dark overcoat,

Chekhov - as Brian Reeve contends in his introduction - was also a man of action who praised the exploits of Henry Morton Stanley. In this respect Chekhov differs from his own dramatis personae, who are so often choked by their own inactivity.

Reeve's introduction also de- monstrates how Sakhalin Island marks a watershed in Chekhov's literary career, as he developed a terser, more suggestive style and threw off the didactic orientations of Tolstoy's moral philosophy. Indeed, it is significant that Chekhov's dramatic masterpieces were all written after his return from Sakhalin.

Sakhalin Island is ostensibly an expose of the Tsarist penal system, or, as Chekhov himself expressed it, 'A suitcase full of every kind of odds and ends to do with the hard-labour system'. But it also reflects the full range of Chekhov's preoccupations as a writer and as a doctor; preoccupations which he compared to cockroaches swarming around his brain.

The book extends from records of the island's prehistoric archaeology, to a detailed census of its scattered convict settlements, an account of its indigenous inhabitants, and a description of its geology, flora and fauna. Accompanied by a lengthy bibliography of over a hundred secondary sources, Sakhalin Island is pervaded with intertextual references to other histories and geographies. It shows off the breadth of Chekhov's reading as well as the depth of his field work.

But in fact Sakhalin Island focuses as much on a moral and conceptual geography as it does on a physical location. Throughout the book Chekhov demonstrates that for most of his contemporaries Sakhalin was less a place than an imaginary topos; because it had acquired mythical status, its existence had become fictitious. Significantly, Chekhov observes that the official charts of the Tatar and Sakhalin coasts are notoriously unreliable and that the captain of his boat 'follows his own, which he draws up and corrects while sailing.'

Overcast with leaden clouds for most of the year, with an average temperature of zero degrees and battered by the North Pacific Ocean, Sakhalin was not,

Chekhov remarks with some irony, a very constructive place to dispatch those in need of reform. Neither was its potential as an agricultural colony as inexhaustible as the Tsarist government affirmed. This was the Russian Empire's cowboy outback, or as Chekhov puts it in one of his travel pieces from Siberia, Russia's Wild West, its Patagonia.

On his arrival at Sakhalin Chekhov had 10,000 index cards printed at the printing shop of the police department and then embarked upon a comprehensive census of the convict settlements, most of which he visited. In the pages of Sakhalin Island he records the life of officialdom and the intricate convict hierarchy, as well as details of the exiles' diet, clothing, social habits, corporal punishment and the ubiquitous prostitution.

Following his credo that a writer should be as detached as a chemist, Chekhov describes the ruthless exploitation of convicts in the mines where life 'seems to slip away on a narrow coastal bank between the clay shore and the sea'. Here the only sound is the clinking of fetters and the thunder of breakers on the shore. At the same time, he evokes the cramped living conditions in cells which reek of faeces and sweat, and where men and women of all ages huddle together on long benches in freezing conditions.

Since concepts of reform are non-existent here, Chekhov believes that life sentence to Sakhalin is a death sentence 'clothed in another form less repugnant to human sensibilities'. Passages of factual reporting convey the brutality of convict life as well as the blatant inadequacies of a judicial system that can send the innocent but inarticulate peasant Yegor to the hell of Sakhalin. Moreover, the mixture of biographical details and general observations of convict life demonstrates Chekhov's elegant command of his narrative technique. And nowhere does he fall victim to the myth of the impartial ethnographer. In a humorous encounter with the local Gilyacs - one of the island's native tribes - he is described as a 'write-write man'.

The murky tones of the photographs of Sakhalin convict life which accompany A Journey To Sakhalin highlight the graphic quality of Chekhov's prose. Thus, Chekhov informs the reader that the dogs on Sakhalin bark only at the presence of Gilyacs because they wear boots made out of dog-skin. Elsewhere he describes meeting peasant women on the road 'who have covered themselves against the rain with big burdock leaves, like headscarves, and because of this look like green beetles'.

In fact, even though Chekhov contends that Sakhalin is inauspicious terrain for a landscape painter, his descriptions are shot through with a lyricism that breaks up the relentless accounts of exploitation. Thus, on an evening drive above Alexandrovsk: '. . . the gigantic burdock leaves seem like tropical plants, while the dark hills loomed in on all sides. Away in the distance were fires where people were burning coal, and there would be a light from a forest fire. The moon would rise. Suddenly, a fantastic picture: trundling to meet us along the rails, on a small platform, a convict leaning on a pole, dressed all in white .' To a certain extent this 'fantastic appearance' that the convict island assumes for Chekhov undermines his project of exploding the mythic Sakhalin. Yet the tension that arises between Chekhov's lyrical and naturalistic impulses generates a narrative that is always compelling.

In short, this is a much needed new annotated translation of Sakhalin Island, collected together with Chekhov's travel sketches from Siberia and extracts of his letters. Neither is the book devoid of humour. Chekhov lists the convicts' adopted surnames, such as 'Can't-remember-my-relations'. In another passage he compares the Gilyacs' notorious misogyny to that of Strindberg and observes: 'If he ever chanced to come to Northern Sakhalin, they would spend ages embracing each other.'

Comments