The Chukchi Bible: Mythic Family History in Russia’s Netherworld

05/25/2011 4:00 AM |

The Chukchi Bible

By Yuri Rytkheu
Trans. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse


Can the author of a story about indigenous people be accused of idealized, patronizing Noble Savage characterizations if that author is himself a member of the nation? The question arises more than once in The Chukchi Bible, even as each successive chapter draws the reader more deeply into the story and fate of the Chukchis, a group that lived—and still lives, in far fewer numbers—in the northeast nether-regions of Russia, just over the Bering Strait from Alaska. This beautifully rendered tale is a tribute not only to Chukchi history but to their tradition of oral storytelling. But the question of whether Rytkheu is laying on the primitivism keeps arising.

It’s especially distracting in the last few chapters, when Rytkheu zooms in to tell the story of his grandfather, Mletkin. Rytkheu, an author of several previous novels about the Chukchi, vividly recounts his grandfather’s journey: young hunter, shaman, sailor on a U.S. vessel, exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, and finally a wizened old man who sees his people’s values and traditions sandblasted away by American and Bolshevik influences. Rytkheu romanticizes Mletkin’s life and character, especially when it comes to Mletkin’s romance with his wife, Givivneu. In Rytkheu’s telling, Mletkin is a lover straight out of medieval England—a chivalrous knight who literally challenges another man to a duel to win his bride. For Rytkheu, it’s not enough for his grandfather to be merely a man: he must be a flawless representation of the best qualities of all the Chukchi ancestors described in the book, the Last of the Chukchi, as it were. But even this two-dimensionality doesn’t detract from Rytkheu’s beautifully wrought and absolutely gripping tales of whale hunts, shamanic torture tests, feasts and famines, naming ceremonies, that all provide a unique glimpse into an all but unknown culture.