The Journals of a White Sea Wolf By Mariusz Wilk trs Danusia Stok

Monks and drunks adrift
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The Independent Culture

I have yet to meet anyone who didn't feel a bit of a changeling, that their true home was somewhere other than their birthplace. For a Pole to feel this way about Russia, though, is truly remarkable. I was once told: "To get an Englishman to understand the significance of Russia for the Poles, you have to conjure up a vision of Cossacks raping the Princess of Wales in the grounds of Buckingham Palace." But this particular Pole, Mariusz Wilk, is drawn to the Great Bear which for so long rampaged through Poland's forests. Or, rather, he is drawn to its heart, a heart he sees in an almost uninhabited archipelago, Solovky.

After reading this book, you can see why. For Solovky remains an anomaly to which all of us should pay attention. It began as a centre of monasticism, filled by those who felt that the Machiavellian princedom of Moscow had betrayed the high ideals of Russia's spiritual mission. Later, it became a fortress against the encroaching Swedes. Finally, Stalin made it the prototype for the gulags. Like the crusaders, the communists understood the neutering power of blasphemy: the altar of the cathedral was turned into a privy, and one of the churches into "a museum of atheism". Now it doesn't know where or what it is. Monks and drunks mingle on islands which are spiritually sinking, filled with lakes which mirror everything. As the author records, one poet, Yulka M, "became so confused by these multiple images that she hanged herself so as to return to unity".

Wilk's take on the mighty ruin of Solovky is an original one: that it is so precise and intense a microcosm of Russia's past as to outdo Russia itself in Russianness. Solovky is the flame, Russia only the shadow.

This book is allusive and elegant, and deeply stimulating. The odd lapse occurs only when Wilk's inner frustration at conveying the wraith-like quality of Russian culture carries him into quagmires. So we have the brilliant image of Tolstoy's language being like "turning soil over with a spade", followed by the rather less successful "Pushkin's [is] short and sonorous, like a slap on the cheek." I've never experienced a sonorous slap, and nor, I suspect, have most of us. Similarly, I have never heard of cocaine providing a "mute rapture". Wilk's conviction - correct in my view - that it is not merely poetry but reality itself which is lost in translation, is manifested in an insistence upon preserving as many Russian words as possible in the text. You're forced at almost every page to trudge to the glossary at the end. Mind you, the glossary is a silvermine in itself. Blyad can mean both "whore" and "reality" since, "the external world is... enchantment... vanity and ruin." The word for "democracy" is linked to the word for "to steal".

As Wilk constantly points out, Western Europe's 500-year-long wariness of Russia springs from seeing itself parodied on a vast and grotesque scale, itself and not itself. Europe feared Russia: as a king fears his jester, as Frankenstein feared his homunculus. The Great, "tolerant" enlightenment was mocked in a society whose upper classes spoke French and read Voltaire while the peasants ate God and vomited anti-semitism. Long before the Cold War and McCarthy, the West saw that this mighty enemy was the enemy within, and, in its own way, the still, small voice of spiritual reproach.