По Уссурийкому Краю
V. K. Arsen’ev
(V. K. Arseniev)
(translation by Dennis Kalma)
There is an expression in the Russian language: “настолная книга.” Literally an “on the table book,” it refers to a book that is not put up on the shelf and forgotten, but to one you keep beside you on the table and read so often it becomes a part of your life. These two companion books by the Russian explorer and geographer Vladimir Klavdievich Arsen’ev are one of my “table books.” Originally published separately as “Through the Ussuri Region” and “Dersu Uzala,” they were later combined by Arsen’ev as “In the Wilderness of the Ussuri Region.”
I first learned of Arsen’ev and his companion Dersu Uzala from the Kurosawa film “Dersu Uzala.” Although given the name of the second book, the film covers the material in both. Falling in love with the movie, I then read the book, at least in translation.
The translation, by Malcolm Burr, titled “Dersu The Trapper” is even better than the movie. The characters are better developed and the details of where they went and what they saw are enthralling. It suffers from some archaic British idioms, such as “That’s rummy, …,” and is abridged, but is an otherwise wonderful reading experience. Originally published in 1941 it was long out of print. It was reissued in 1996, but is again unavailable.
A passion for the book led me to ressurect my college Russian and to begin to read the book in the original. Thanks to “Globus A Slavic Bookstore” in San Francisco I was able to obtain a copy in Russian.
It is a book with many levels. At the first level it is a record of the experiences of Dersu and Arsen’ev as they traveled through the wilderness of Ussuria in the early 1900’s. The feeling for the area conveyed by the descriptions of the land, its flora and fauna, and the people who lived there make this some of the best nature/travel writing ever. Perhaps it has a special appeal to me because Ussuria seems so familiar, so much like my New England.
At another level the book is about friendship. Arsen’ev, an educated Russian officer, and Dersu, an unlettered native hunter and trapper, come from very different backgrounds. But they form a friendship that is deep and strong, a friendship between equals. I disagree with Kurosawa’s portrayal of Dersu as a lovable sidekick to Arsen’ev. The original text shows none of this. Although Dersu is uneducated, he is a complete and equal person. The friendship between the two men grows as they travel together and is annealed by the adventures they share. Each recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of the other, but these are accepted and become part of the friendship.
And finally, on a third level, it is a book about the relationship between civilization and nature. Of course civilization destroys nature. What is interesting in the book is that while Arsen’ev describes man’s effect on Ussuria, there is a parallel and perhaps unintended story of the effect of civilization on Dersu. Ironically and predictably it is the very friendship between the civilized Arsen’ev and the natural Dersu that leads to Dersu’s death at the end of the book – shades of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
It is a great book and deserves to be more widely read. Because a published English translation is not readily available I am placing my translation on this website. It is an ongoing labor of love and will proceed with appalling slowness. I am not a Russian scholar, but am an ecologist and naturalist who has spent much of his life tramping through terrain very like Ussuria. I like to think that Vladimir Arsen’ev and Dersu Uzala and I would have enjoyed traveling together.
When a pod of humpback whales got trapped in the ice in the Bering Sea and their fate was being followed by the international media, they were finally rescued by the Russian government which sent an icebreaker to create a lane to open water for them. It was a fitting if unintended tribute that the icebreaker was the “V.K. Arsen’ev.”