In the Footsteps of Sieroszewski

Michał Książek, Jakuck. Słownik Miejsca [Yakutsk. A Dictionary of a Place], Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2013, 248 pages

Michał Książek’s “Yakutsk” is a telling example of how unusual the consequences of childhood reading might be. This Siberian story takes place in 2008/2009, but its origins reach back to the declining years of communist Poland and to the author’s family home. On the shelf, “next to crystal vessels and silver trays on an old dresser,” were 22 volumes of Wacław Sieroszewski’s works, among them Twelve Years in the Country of the Yakuts.

The author (born 1978), as he recalls, learn to read on them. This is why he remembers such Yakut words as byhach or at equally well as the Polish dagger or mount. A quarter of a century later he travelled to “the land of the Yakut’s” and became a “Siberian guide” in the full sense of the word.

Yakutsk. A Dictionary of a Place is a story both about one of the least known areas of Eurasia and its inhabitants, and about its explorers. Książek interestingly shows the Siberian experiences of Sieroszewski, he reaches the places were the author of classic works about the Yakuts lived in exile, he follows in his footsteps on the territory ten times the size of Poland—and everywhere he encounters traces of his countrymen, who have earned a place in the history of Yakutia. Among them were both 19th century idealists, who pursued their social and scholarly ambitions in exile, and professional revolutionaries such as Feliks Kon or Polish Bolsheviks fighting against the army of Kolchak and participating in the communist conquest of the Far North.

Yakutsk of course, is primarily a book about… the Yakuts. About their language and culture, beliefs and customs, survival strategies and mores, history and modernity. Yakuts, belonging to the vast Eurasian group of Turkic peoples, most likely migrated from the Lake Baikal not earlier than a thousand years ago. They drove northward the local, indigenous Evenki, but later they themselves succumbed to Russian colonization and now they constitute only one third of the inhabitants of Yakutia with its less than one million people. Książek spent among them enough time to learn the language (and to read Twelve Years… in Yakutian). He was involved in many situations that would never happen to a typical “flying reporter” from the era of CNN and Twitter. Thanks to that, Yakutsk is not so much a “dictionary of a place,” but an „encyclopaedia” of the land of the Yakuts.

The core of the book is composed of extended entries explaining the meaning of various words from the Yakut language. Many of them entered Polish by way of Russian—for example the word bałagan [disorder], stemming from balaghan, that this house, hut. In Russia and Ukraine it initially denoted village fair theatres, but soon—through an association with a flimsy shack which played the role of home, stage and means of transportation for the acting company—the word became a synonym of disorder. Interestingly, it was borrowed from the Tunguska—Chukchi people and Nenets still use it to name their small tents or curtains hung in their yaranga and tchuma.

Such transcontinental migrations of words are an echo of migrations of people. “Old Yakutian Kos undoubtedly has a common origin with the Turkish Kocze, which by way of Russian gave rise to the Polish verb ‘koczować’ [be a nomad]”, writes Książek. The migration of Yakuts from Lake Baikal took place almost at the same time as the arrival of the Magyars on the shores of Balaton (and it is possible that these two events have a common root cause, which should be sought—as in the case of migration of the Goths, Huns, Avars, Turkuts, Slavs and Mongols—in the Great Steppe).

Another, no less interesting and at the same particularly memorable layer of the book are the almost diary-like entries documenting everyday life. Książek does not refrain from naturalistic descriptions, which for some people would probably be uncomfortable to read were it not for the author’s sense of humor. In Yakutia the average temperature in January is -38.6°C; in Verkhoyansk the mercury in thermometers drops down to -70°C. In such conditions, even in the capital city (Yakutsk, 200,000 inhabitants) satisfying (or not) your physiological need often requires heroism. When you go shopping or for a walk with your child, it has to be preceded by thorough preparations; you need to follow certain rules (also pertaining to the consumption of alcoholic beverages). Descriptions of the journey across Yakutia—and we will find many of them in the book—suggest that in the winter it is an experience comparable only to crossing the Sahara.

Yakutsk is also a story about the singular customs (for defined not only through shamanism, but also through Sovietism) of the inhabitants of Yakutia. Those living in the capital look down on provincials, but they are united in their dislike towards the Russians and the seasonal workers from the former Soyuz. The Russians, in turn, look suspiciously at the aliens, which brings to mind a dialogue overheard in a city bus in Yakutsk:

  • What are these fucking foreigners learning Yakutian for?
  • Spies… NATO sleepers… We are sitting on the periodic table like on a feather-bed!

The author does not dazzle the reader with drastic descriptions and does not heap them to excess. He does not push his own person to the fore—he gives the reader as much of his privacy as is necessary. He never loses sight of his goal, which is telling a story about the Yakuts. And in this respect also he proved to be an apt pupil of Sieroszewski.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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