I’m not quite sure why I feel so surprised about how much I enjoyed Aleksandr Grigorenko’s Мэбэт (Mebet, watch for spoilers!), a novel Grigorenko apparently used to describe as, simply, “about the taiga.” Despite lots of great reviews and recommendations, I’d been passing over Mebet on my shelf for almost four years, always thinking, I suppose, that a book about a taiga warrior sounded too frozen, anthropological, ethnographic, folkloric, frozen (did I mention that already?), and, thus, uninteresting to pick up. Obviously, I was wrong.
Mebet is anything but uninteresting, probably because Grigorenko so successfully channels what is frozen, anthropological, ethnographic, folkloric, and (again) frozen into the story of one man’s successes (mostly in hunting, often done in others’ territory, and in battle with neighboring peoples, sometimes using tricks) and failures (mostly in dealing with other human beings). What struck me most was Grigorenko’s portrayal of Mebet’s, hmm, rigid character. Don’t get me wrong: a man who can catch flying arrows deserves some big-time praise, but I jotted down “a hardass with no friends.” Mebet, a Nenets who’s a darling of the gods, sees no reason to back down from anything because he sees people as being either weak or strong and he believes there’s no reason to deny one’s category. I’m sure it’s clear which category he inhabits. Mebet even tells his son, Khadko, that there’s just one area where he’s incapable: regretting past deeds or repenting. (That sets up the second half of the book; more on that below.)
Mebet and Khadko have a strained relationship, thanks to differences in their worldviews: Khadko may be a fantastic hunter but, unlike his father, he wants to observe the rules of the taiga that humans have set. In a key disagreement, Khadko follows those rules and proposes marriage properly to a woman from another tribe; he’s refused and told, in part, that it’s because his father doesn’t honor gods or guidelines, and wants only for others to fear him. Khadko marries a different woman; Mebet chooses her and kidnaps her for Khadko. She is Khadne (her name means Woman of the Blizzard) and she turns out to be very helpful in battle against her own people.
What I’ve outlined is only a portion of the story, to show some of the factors that lead to further confrontations in the book, after Mebet goes to take revenge on a bear and loses, which forces him to, well, face his mortality, his wrongdoing, and those he has wronged. Those people range from his battle victims to a one-eyed witch who made mushroom potions that Khadko tried. During a hellish eleven-stage quest, Mebet runs into the spirits of many of those people and is aided by his very wise talking dog. Like Mebet’s prideful character, many of the realizations that come—about immortality, being manipulated, and how scary it is to be a human (or even a dog?)—feel universal rather than unique to the taiga, despite belonging so solidly in Mebet.
For this reader, the biggest miracle of Mebet isn’t what happens in the end but that the novel works so beautifully, making a 239-page book feels like the epic literature that reviews promised. The matter-of-fact storytelling, the timeless characters speaking everyday-sounding Russian (they even say “oy”), the narrator’s occasional contextualizing, and the many familiar tropes Grigorenko folds into the text all make Mebet read easily, but the more I go back to look at my notes and reread individual pages, the more I appreciate—as I always do—how much depth an author can work into such a seemingly simple text. Mebet made for particularly good company during a particularly busy time: it’s not easy to find books that read this smoothly, pleasantly, and smartly on multiple levels.
Up next: Boris Akunin’s The Black City, set in Baku; fun in spots but dragging a bit. Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, which I’m reading slowly and enjoying very much.