The summer before my senior year of high school, we moved from Washington DC to Moscow. It was the first time my father had been posted to a non-English speaking country since Japan in the early eighties, and the biggest adventure my siblings and I had ever embarked on: the street signs in Cyrillic script; the bone-chilling winter cold; the doorman of our building, who recorded our comings and goings in a notebook he didn’t even bother to hide from us; but also the glittering Imperial splendour of the Bolshoï; the golden onion domes of Orthodox churches; and the incredible hospitality of the Russians who became our friends… We certainly had enough to keep us busy and entertained.
So when the head teacher of my class decided to organise a trip the following January to visit Lake Baikal, in Siberia, I was markedly less receptive to the idea than those of my classmates who had already been in Moscow for several years and who had had ample occasion (in theory) to see all the sights. To be perfectly honest, however, my lack of enthusiasm had much less to do with timing and destination than with my classmates, almost every one of whom I thoroughly disliked. I could think of very few worse fates than being cooped up with them in a coach and a cramped hostel for more than ten days. Siberia being synonymous in my mind with gulags, in any case, I could see no advantages whatsoever in the scheme.
To my relief, my parents took an equally poor view of the proposed trip, considering it extraordinarily foolhardy, if not downright stupid, to want to take a bunch of school kids to Siberia in the depths of winter. It was out of the question I should go. I spent my classmates’ absence peacefully reading, and viewed their return with dismay – could they have been lost forever along the icy shores of the lake, I would undoubtedly have been happier.
After that, I thought no more of Lake Baikal for the next twelve or thirteen years.
Then, two Christmases ago, a friend of my sister-in-law’s gave her The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga (Dans les forêts de Sibérie), by French travel writer and adventurer, Sylvain Tesson. I took a sneak peak at it one day when she’d left it on the coffee table and became engrossed. Then my father caught sight of it. Before the Christmas holidays were over, there were three of us trying to read it simultaneously and my sister-in-law complained she never knew where to find her book from one moment to the next. The first thing I did when I returned to Paris was order a copy of my own. I was far from being the only one – The Consolations of the Forest was something of a literary sensation among our circle of friends that winter.
The premise of the book is simple enough: fatigued by the hustle and bustle of life in a globalised, ultra-capitalistic world, Tesson decided to carry out a long-cherished dream and retire to a log cabin in the woods along the western shore of Lake Baikal. He bade girlfriend, family and friends farewell and set out with a truckload of books, cigars, vodka and tea, a rifle, and a flare gun to warn off bears. During the six months he spent there, from February to July of 2010, he kept a journal, chronicling the minutiae of his daily life and thoughts.
Most people, I suppose, would view those six months of solitude and – let’s face it – hardship with undisguised horror (never mind wifi, what about proper plumbing???). Tesson seems to relish almost every minute. Having crossed the Himalayas and most of central Asia on foot, he is used to roughing it and the prospect of being a two-day drive across the frozen lake away from his nearest neighbours is not calculated to intimidate, but rather to delight, him. He is a man in search of peace and the freedom to live his life on his own terms, unfettered by the conventions of society. In fact, the only form of social contact he seems prepared to put up with is the occasional night of drunken philosophising with passing rangers. Tesson speaks fluent Russian and it is easy to see he feels a strong kinship with the people and culture of Russia.
He describes hacking a hole in the icy surface of the lake with his axe and sitting there for hours, in the hope of catching enough Arctic char for his evening meal; sitting on the bench outside his cabin, with his back against the rough logs, letting the winter sun warm his face and play across his closed eyelids; hiking up the mountainside, through fog-wreathed cedar forests, first alone, and later with Aïka and Bêk, the pups a friendly ranger loans him to scare off the bears come spring; sitting at the window, near the warmth of the wood-burning stove, watching a timid blue-tit hop a little closer to the window-sill, while the steam from his mug of tea rises in curls and gradually fogs up the pane of glass. Life as a Siberian hermit suits him. “Recipe for happiness: a window looking out onto Lake Baikal, and a table in front of the window”, he is reported as having told journalists. Even the inevitable moments of boredom and loneliness are not enough to dim his pleasure in his way of life. They give rise to vodka-fuelled midnight meditations (when in Rome…) on the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, an eighteenth-century Orthodox monk who spent twenty-five years living as a hermit in the woods, and whose face stares mournfully out at him from the cheap icon he bought and propped up in front of his camp-bed.
For the reader, his book is that window looking out onto Lake Baikal. It is highly doubtful I – or anyone I know, for that matter – will ever travel to Siberia. But for those of us who grew up reading Thoreau and have fantasized about going to the woods to live deliberately, Tesson provides a bit of satisfaction by proxy. His almost painterly evocations of Siberian landscapes combine with a knack for an aphoristic turn of phrase, which can make him as caustic as he is, at other times, poetic. The reader is saved from an overdose of earnestness (induced by too much Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer) by the twinkle in his eye. I kept The Consolations of the Forest on my bedside table for over a year, voluntarily taking my time over it. I found that reading a few pages, even a single paragraph, every night had a soothing effect upon me. Nestling beneath the bedcovers, I would slip into a cool, quiet world, fragrant with the scent of cedar sap and wood smoke. I had no cause to regret that high-school trip: I was there.
© Florence Berlioz 2017