The Journals of a White Sea Wolf by Mariusz Wilk, trans. Danusia Stok Harvill, £15.99

A tetchy exile in Russia's holy islands
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The Independent Culture

The literary travelogue - with elements of history, anthropology, personal experience and quest - is a difficult genre. In the absence of conventional plot, the challenge is to create a forward momentum, something that Bruce Chatwin was notably skilled at doing. In lesser hands, such a book could easily stagnate. Yet The Journals of a White Sea Wolf is a triumph. In mesmeric detail, Mariusz Wilk chronicles the Solovetsky Islands, a remote archipelago on Russia's northern White Sea Coast.

The author, a Polish journalist, went to live on these islands in 1991 after working in Paris for a Polish magazine. In Russia's desolate Far North he found an alternative to the featherbed of expatriate life. The islands are not very large ("none being more than a day's journey on foot") and have about 1,100 inhabitants. Yet Wilk appears to relish his ascetic exile there and the challenge of subsisting on rhubarb and elk meat.

These tiny islands remained uninhabited until medieval times, when Finnish tribes settled in and around the White Sea peninsula. The first known foreigners to encounter these settlements were English. In 1566, the navigators Thomas Southem and John Spark were blown by an easterly wind against the archipelago, but reported nothing of interest except sea birds.

Ever since the 15th century, when Solovetsky monastery was founded, these islands have been the acknowledged heart of Russian Orthodoxy and a powerful focus of Russian independence in the north. With the collapse of Communism, old Orthodox believers make pilgrimages to the Solovetsky chain for its lovely churches and imposing Cathedral of the Transfiguration (shelled by British warships in 1854).

Solovetskian monks were dependably faithful to imperialist Russia and even helped the tsars to incarcerate renegade priests and the odd rebel aristocrat. Long after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the islands continued to detain "state enemies"; the first Soviet concentration camps were established around the deconsecrated monastery. Surely it was not by accident that Solzhenitsyn chose the metaphor of an "archipelago" to describe the Soviet penal system. A constellation of camps was set up in former church properties for invalids, women with babies and (ironically) tsarist monks. When not helping to breed musk-rats for fur, the convicts were subjected to brutal forced labour and political "re-education".

A cast of drunken motorcyclists, local farmers and prying neighbours enliven the author's precise historical accounts and digressions into marine biology. Wilk is a poetic spirit and neatly evokes the islands' remoteness and singular weather. (Snow pelts down like "pearl barley"; the long white summer nights "smoulder" a ghostly lilac colour.)

Though this book is travel, it is decidedly not a treacly celebration of local custom in a remote community. Sentimental accounts of "Mother Russia" by foreign correspondents irk Wilk terribly and he tries to avoid stereotypes or generalisations. The result is a marvellously engaging amalgam of (often tetchy) opinion, history and flavoursome travelogue.

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