A bird flies around, takes a few shits, the shit turns into land and, voilà, the world is created.
That may sound like a summary of a terrible animated short or a 1970s acid trip, but it’s simply my poorly hyper-abridged version of one of many truly beautiful Chukchi folk tales that mark the beginning of time and man in Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible. Here’s the real version:
A raven was flying over an expanse. From time to time he slowed his flight and scattered his droppings. Wherever solid matter fell, a land mass appeared; wherever liquid fell became rivers and lakes, puddles and rivulets. Sometimes First Bird’s excrements mingled together, and this created the tundra marshes. The hardest of the Raven’s droppings served as the building blocks for scree slopes, mountains, and craggy cliffs.
There’s just something amazing about folk tales. I grew up with them as bedtime stories and have had a soft spot for them ever since, even preferring them to all things Disney. See, I find fairy tales lack that realistic nitty-gritty and hometown hero charm only a culture-specific folk tale can evoke. “Folk tales” focus on specific aspects of a culture, its values and history, whereas “fairy tales” are mostly about dwarves, princes hooking up with princesses, and evil queens getting tossed into canyons. While both forms of story telling are meant to entertain, folk tales are better in regard to educating and reminding us where we come from. And The Chukchi Bible has no shortage of heroes, culture, reality and that delicious nitty-gritty that makes stories like this all the more tangible.
Author Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is considered the “father of Chukchi literature“—though the title should probably be more along the lines of “only Chukchi literary figure“—and during his lifetime, published several novels and collections of short stories and poetry. Only a few of his works have been translated into English, the most recent preceding The Chukchi Bible being A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006). Rytkheu was born and grew up in the coastal village of Uelen, which is located in the Chukotka region of Russia and is the country’s eastern most settlement. While his previous works have been fictional, The Chukchi Bible is a hybrid of legend and hard fact. In a short introduction Rytkheu explains, “The book is not just the story of my lineage, and not just the story of our clan, but also the genealogy and the root of all my books.”
The first part of The Chukchi Bible is a crash-course in the Chukchi way of life—something that is so far removed from anything I’ve personally known or understood that it took some getting used to. Harpooning whales and spearing seals for food and clothing, washing their faces with urine to improve complexion, accommodating a guest by letting him sleep with your wife or daughter . . . Rytkheu’s writing and vivid imagery brings out the best and worst, the most common and most abnormal of the life on the Arctic coast. What I mean by this is that, while the customs, actions and lifestyles described are initially shocking, I was eventually able to understand that it was simply the way things were done; out of a necessity for survival and a respect for one’s culture.
The second part of the book starts with the birth of Rytkheu’s grandfather, Mletkin. Once the book moves into Mletkin’s life, the imagery and tone of the narrative take on a more personal feeling:
Mletkin always had a particular, not to say unnatural, curiosity about death. Whenever it fell to him to assist Kalyantagrau in helping someone to die, he would peer intently into the dying one’s face, and each time he was just as astonished at how little the dead person resembled the living one. Oh, on the outside, the two were similar enough. But only on the outside. It was strikingly apparent that something internal and imperceptible was disappearing, something invisible but so essential that the body of the deceased suddenly seemed so more than a covering, the outer clothing of the person who had now passed into the unfathomable beyond.
The story follows Mletkin throughout his life—from a boy just going through the motions of village life in Uelen, into a young adult who starts to see how the outside world is not only different from his own, but can also be detrimental to it, and finally into a man who has traveled the world and is so self-aware it is at times frightening.
However, it’s hard to label the entirety of Rytkheu’s work purely as fiction. The Chukchi Bible is a record of how and what the Chukchi hunted, what they ate, what they wore, how they named their children, claimed their spouses, and how their culture was slowly but surely upended by both Russian and American influences. And yet it focuses on Rytkheu’s own family and is a kind of homage to his grandfather, Mletkin, the last shaman of the coastal Siberian village of Uelen. This historical account of the Chukchi people and the author’s roots is lush with mystic elements of Chukchi folk culture. Biography, history, fantasy—it’s a three-in-one deal. Rytkheu moves smoothly from one genre to another in a conversational, educational, but never boring manner.
What’s great about The Chukchi Bible is that it conveys the hauntingly beautiful connection between man and nature alongside the scientific aspects of the harsh reality in which Rytkheu’s resilient ancestors lived and interacted—all the while weaving it seamlessly with that folk tale thread. The emotional and factual experience while reading this is analogous to taking a book of the Brothers Grimm and a National Geographic documentary, mixing it into a half liter of Coke, then dropping in a Mentos and enjoying the ensuing explosion as it all rains down.
That’s right—it’s freaking awesome.
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