Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nikolai Maslov’s Siberia

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.

A very big thank you to Soft Skull Press and Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy of Siberia, at my request, after I visited Soft Skull’s booth at Book Expo America.

Siberia on Amazon

(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!)


  1. Great review, Lisa. I'm glad to know there's a sequel! I thought this was such a moving, beautiful book-ethereal is a great word for the art.

  2. Thanks, Marie! My French is lousy but I'm definitely interested in the second book... the drawings in Siberia really got me.

  3. Great review! I have slightly off-topic question: is there a Russian equivalent of New York Times Book Review or anything that resembles that format that you;re aware of?

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Steven.

    Your question is a very good one! I've been meaning for some time to systematize my links to literary publications and reviews -- I'll put together a post about them this month. Since I haven't lived in Russia since the '90s, I'm not sure about all the (paper) publication formats but there are some good, constant Internet sources of reviews and analysis.

    I'd be very happy to hear from readers about favorite and/or helpful reviewers, publications, or sites they'd like me to mention.

  5. Lisa, I must confess that even though I'm bilingual in Russian and English I find your blog the best source for reviews of new Russian fiction. Currently I am in the middle of "Андерманир штук". I have followed a livejournal community but it's pretty eclectic in its focus.

    1. A belated thank you for your very kind comment, Steven! It went to a spam folder I didn't know I had. (Oddly, based on the comment I left below, I must have received a notification on your URL correction but not about this comment...)

      Of course now I wonder what you thought of Андерманир штук!

  6. Correction to the link:

  7. I received notification that Steven posted another comment... but nothing appeared on the blog so I'll fill in.

    Here is the link he left for the livejournal community known as Что читать?, which I also occasionally visit. It is, as he noted, very eclectic!

  8. Great link; I just posted it at LH.

  9. One of the things I've often found missing from the graphic novels I've read has been the attention to detail. Often it's a stylistic choice, meant to focus on certain things as opposed to others (characters, perhaps, over background), but I have to say that your description of "Siberia" makes it sound quite good. I'll have to look into this a little more. Great review!

  10. Thank you for the comment, Bibliobio. I can't compare Siberia to other graphic novels because it's the only one I've read... but I can say that I think the drawings are quite detailed. Let me know if you have questions about it: I think there are more Russian sites/pages with samples of the drawings.

    Also, an FYI for all: Bibliobio surveyed book bloggers earlier this year, asking about their blogs and backgrounds. The results, which are very interesting, are available here.