I bought Siberia by Nikolai Maslov after reading impressive reviews, one after another. Siberia is a graphic novel, so if that sends you screaming for the door, please exit slowly and in an orderly fashion. Thank you.
Unlike other graphic books in the historical/memoir genre, Siberia contains little in the way of dialog and a minimum of exposition.
Instead, Maslov largely lets the pictures tell his story. The author/artist actually grew up in Siberia, as opposed to being sent there for punishment. He worked construction for a while, dodged the town’s drunks and rowdies, served in the Russian Army in Mongolia, and worked a variety of odd jobs. One such job was getting a job at a Moscow art gallery. Instead of the glamorous job he envisioned, the job mostly entailed packing official portraits of Lenin.
The story is one of desolation, pointlessness, beauty, despair, loss, art, violence, madness, and, occasionally, hope. It is no accident that the author’s landscapes and cityscapes are beautiful, while his pictures of average Soviet citizens are grotesque. The Soviet era does not appear to have been kind to its citizens.
The author laments that the Soviets did not allow his generation to create. In one scene, Maslov is threatened with arrest if he does not remove the drawings he has displayed for sale in a park. The book is filled with images of the destruction that replaced the creative impulse of a generation. Fields are littered with industrial/military debris. Senseless violence seems to be a staple of life. Life was to be endured, not lived. If nothing else, the book is a testament to the importance of the creative impulse. But it is more. Siberia also bears witness to the realities of a life on the extreme fringes of the Soviet nation.
The drawing in Siberia are relatively naive by modern graphic novel standards. The drawings are in pencil only. They have not been “finished” in ink or colored in any way. This is understandable, given that the artist has been creating the work in isolation – in a world where the art form is largely non-existent. That the work was created at all is fairly amazing.
The story of how the book came to be published is also interesting on its own. The author marched into the offices of a French publisher based in Moscow and presented him with three pages of drawings. Based on these, Maslov essentially demanded an advance so that he could quit his job and complete the book. It worked.
Siberia is greater than the sum of its parts. It almost requires multiple readings so that the full message of its images can be conveyed. The drawings, so simple at first blush, prove to be surprisingly complex. Maslov’s minimalist accounting of the life of a Siberian everyman in pictures could fill volumes.
Bonus: The nice people at Soft Skull Press have thoughtfully provided us with a copy of Siberia to pass along for free ($0) to one of our readers. If you have an interest in checking out Siberia, this is about as cost-effective a way to realize that dream as you are likely to find. Leave us a comment, and I’ll pick a lucky recipient from among the responses.