I’m glad that a word on the end of the graphic novel shelf at the Seattle Public Library caught my eye one Saturday in early May. The word? Siberia, the title of an autobiography with pencil drawings by Nikolai Maslov; Blake Ferris translated the text.
The story behind the publication of Siberia, which was originally called Советская молодость (A Soviet Youth) is almost as good as the story within Siberia itself. To keep things brief, I’ll quote the back of my book: “In 2000, Nikolai Maslov, then a night watchman, opens the door of Emmanuel Durand, a French book salesman in Moscow and an editor of Asterix in Russia, and shows the Frenchman three panels from a graphic novel, asking him to finance the rest.” Durand did.
Many aspects of the story in Maslov’s book didn’t feel very unusual to me – the military draft, hazing, politicized art school, bits of Soviet history, a mention of Deep Purple, stores with shortages, and lots of the other late Soviet-era details were familiar. But those usual details that Maslov covers, both in writing and visually, make the book feel important because it describes and shows everyday life. What makes the book unusual is the emotion and the art that Maslov brings to the drinking, fights, grotesque faces, and turns in his life. I think the book succeeds in presenting a very nuanced and precise version of an often brutal world because his pencil drawings create that world out of, literally, shades of gray.
The drawings give Siberia, both the book and the place, a stark beauty and dignity. I’m new to graphic novels – Siberia is my first – and I’m no art critic but the pencil drawings reminded me of black-and-white photographs in a magazine or newspaper. Some realistic panels have a documentary feel, and they contrast sharply with distorted faces and fuzzier images in other panels. All the panels, though, share a gray etherealness.
I focus so much on words that the small bits of text in Siberia felt particularly weighty. One panel, which shows the narrator, alone, stood out: “I left Siberia with a heavy heart. I sat on a bench, barely holding myself upright as the ridiculously simple truth weighed upon me: When you’re part of a herd, it doesn’t matter who is first and who is last.” The next panel shows a wooden house, a run-down fence, and a tilting utility pole. It reads “My farewell present from the place where I was born was a deep anguish, a feeling of absolute despair.”
Siberia’s ending carries hope, but despair runs deep in the book. There is also tremendous depth in the visual details: a pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes here, graffiti there, and, always, endless pencil shading. And there is a sense of the huge dimensions of Siberia and Mongolia. I enjoyed reading Siberia the first time but have gotten even more pleasure from paging through the book again and again to, yes, look at the pictures. Everything, from the patterns on the wallpaper to the cement truck, looks real to me, even when the drawings are close to caricature.
For more: Cover images for Siberia and its sequel, which is available in French, plus a fuzzy sample are available on this Russian page. (I don't believe a Russian version of Siberia is available.) Boston Bibliophile reviewed Siberia in March 2009 here.
(The very small print: As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers click on my Amazon links and make purchases. Thank you!)