Monday, May 21, 2012

Dersu the Trapper

Early in the 20th century Vladimir Arseniev led a number of scientific expeditions in the Russian Far East where a chance encounter with a native man, Dersu Uzala, led to a lasting friendship.

Dersu had no permanent dwelling, carried all of his belongings in a birchbark knapsack, and possessed bush skills so extraordinary he seemed almost clairvoyant. He was able to track wild pigs by his sense of smell, and pluck grouse out trees using a stick with a noose.

He scolded a tiger for stalking them, and reproved Arseniev for throwing a piece of meat into the fire. "In taiga many sort men," he said in imperfect Russian. He was referring to any of the animals who might visit the campsite after they had left, including ants. He believed that everything had a soul, even inanimate objects.

Dersu saved Arseniev's life several times, once when a forest fire overtook them, another time when a blizzard caught them in a marshy area with only reeds for shelter. When they were starving it was Dersu who found fish heads a bear had discarded, and boiled up strips of hide to fill their stomachs.

The Taiga

Arseniev's affection for Dersu was matched by his love of the taiga, and he recorded with an eager eye the plant and animal life they encountered. There were poplars three centuries old and so immense that two or three bears could hibernate inside. Garganey, hazel hen, and eagle owls were a few of the birds he observed, while mammals included roedeer, fanged muskdeer, raccoon dogs, and herds of wild pigs, some of them weighing as much as 600 pounds.

He witnessed a battle between ants and bees, and a chipmunk airing out its cache of food to prevent rot, and a Tibetan bear shaking acorns out of a tree. When they spotted fur seals at the coast he commented on their love of music.

There were moments when even the Cossacks who accompanied him were silenced by the taiga's beauty.

The People

Living in the Russian Far East was an uneasy mixture of Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and various native groups. They hunted and trapped, gathered fungus and ginseng, and cultivated poppies for opium, but it was non-natives who so ransacked the forest that "on every side one sees nothing but robbery and exploitation."

Arseniev provided some amazing glimpses of those natives not yet "in a complete state of slavery." They lived in cedar bark huts and wore moccasins made of fish skins. In the winter they armed themselves with spears and hunted wild pigs on skis. They set nets beneath the ice in small streams, and at night herded fish into them by torchlight while pounding on the ice with mallets.

The End of Dersu

When Dersu's eyesight began to fail, he reluctantly agreed to stay with Arseniev in Khabarovsk. Unfortunately he was unused to living in "a box" and could not understand the restrictions necessary for living in a settlement.

It was not permitted to fire off a gun or pitch a tent in the street. He thought Arseniev was being swindled when he paid money for firewood. When he cut down a tree in a park, he was arrested.

Eventually he left Khabarovsk but did not get far before he was murdered. Arseniev visited the unmarked grave only once. Two years later he was unable to find the spot due to changes brought about by development.

Notes

In the introduction to this edition, it is stated that Dersu is a composite character.

When Arseniev died in 1930 there was a warrant out for his arrest. His widow was shot as a Japanese spy and his daughter imprisoned for 10 years in a gulag.

The graceful translation is by Malcolm Burr, whose life was no less interesting than Dersu's or Arseniev's. He was an entomologist with an abiding interest in the Balkans and the author of several books. He died in Istanbul in 1954.

The cover photo is a still from the motion picture by Kurosawa.

A free audio version is available in the Audio Archive section of the Internet Archive.

The book takes place in the same general region as John Vaillant's enormously readable The Tiger.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Dynamite Fiend

The Chilling Story of Alexander Keith Jr., Nova Scotian Spy, Con-Artist and International Terrorist

Alexander Keith is an icon in Nova Scotia, his name celebrated whenever someone knocks back a beer with the picture of a red stag on it. The brewery he founded in 1820 is still standing, and Haligonians celebrate his birthdate by leaving empties at his grave.

There is, however, another Alexander Keith, a nephew nicknamed Sandy who took a different route to wealth and influence. He began as a clerk in his uncle's brewery and used the position to launch an extravagant lifestyle financed by forgery and embezzlement.

When the American Civil War brought to Halifax "a literal mountain of gold," Sandy set himself up as a broker for Southern blockade-runners, but was not satisfied with simple war-profiteering. The turbulent times made it possible to engage in swindles with few consequences, and allowed him to pocket money for shipments that he never honoured, the goods as diverse as pork, cotton, and a pair of locomotives.

His corrupt dealings brought him into contact with others as unsavoury as himself, including Confederate agents plotting to spread yellow fever in the Northern states. One of his business partners was conspiring with John Wilkes Boothe.

As the war wound down, Sandy fled Halifax with a small fortune and went to ground in Germany. When his money finally ran out, he concocted a desperate plan -- to blow up a passenger liner crossing the Atlantic and collect on a bogus insurance claim -- but what actually happened was a bizarre tragedy of errors. The time-bomb he constructed blew up prematurely on the docks at Bremerhaven, killing 81 people and injuring many more.

His head, which was preserved in a jar, vanished during an Allied bombing raid during WWII.

Author's Approach

The Dynamite Fiend is a work of "narrative nonfiction" fueled by much original research, the key document being a Pinkerton report discovered by the author in the Bremen State Archives. It unravelled the web of aliases and cover stories that Sandy had woven around him.

The author states that one of her goals is to "offset blindly romantic portraits of the past." She certainly does this in her unflattering portrayal of Halifax as "a town almost Southern in its hatred and ill will toward the Union."

But she is wrong, I think, when she describes Nova Scotia as a "hostile colony." Although its people fought on both sides of the Civil War, they had close ties with New England and predominantly sided with the North. Thomas Raddall in his history of Halifax says that "not less than ten thousand Nova Scotians had fought in the blue ranks of the North."

Overall, a gripping and wide-ranging but also unsettling read.