Read-Along, The Archipelago of Another Life, Part IV

In April, I joined fellow blogger, Emma from Words And Peace, in reading a work of contemporary French fiction, L’Archipel d’une autre vie, by Andreï Makine. We invited people to read along with us in French or English and set up a schedule to read one-quarter of the book every two weeks. The story unfolds on the far eastern edge of what is now Russia. Makine’s writing is to be admired. He’s a brilliant storyteller who among other things has opened my eyes to this extremely remote part of the world. In this final post about the book, I give a quick review and share some stunning photos of the Shantar Islands, the breathtaking archipelago from which the book derives its title.

You can find our last round of questions and answers here at Words and Peace.

Gifted Storytelling

I’m very grateful to Emma for having suggested a book that I doubt I would have discovered on my own. The Archipelago of Another Life is a short work of historical fiction that has many rich layers. The story revolves around a suspenseful manhunt that takes place at the eastern edge of the Siberian wilderness. Makine, however, presents us with backstories for each of the pursuers, skillfully juxtaposing a psychological search for identity.

Makine also gives the reader ample insight into the hardships of life under the Soviet system. His narrative makes clear the near impossibility of escape from this authoritative and merciless regime. All of these elements are seamlessly woven together against the backdrop of the Russian taiga. Makine integrates scenes of nature at every turn—its beauty, its perilousness, its ability to appease.

I’ve found it to be a wonderfully crafted book and have appreciated the commentary of Andrew Blackman, a writer and blogger who has joined the Read-Along.

The Shantar Islands

The archipelago referenced in the book’s title refers to the Shantar Islands, located off the eastern coast of Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk. It’s a beautiful and magical setting, perfect for a romanticized existence far from the evils of men. In 2013, Russian scientists and conservationists, with support from the World Wildlife Fund, turned the region into a national park.

Shantar Islands National Park
Shantar Islands National Park

As you can see from the park’s boundaries, marked above in violet, the park not only protects the landmass of the Shantars, but also the surrounding marine waters. The area is home to many species of mammal including brown bear, caribou, red fox, sable, and river otter. Over 240 species of birds live on or migrate through the Shantars, many of which are endangered. The park has also established a protected sanctuary for an entire salmon ecosystem.

Below are some amazing photos that capture the beauty of the Shantars. In Makine’s book, he notes that a compass does not function in these islands. There’s something bizarre about the magnetic properties of the place that cause a compass needle to perpetually spin. I tried to find confirmation of this phenomenon online but came up empty-handed. In fact, it’s hard to find much about the Shantars online in either English or French. It truly remains a remote and little-known corner of our planet.

Most of these images have come from the websites of tour operators that I’ve listed below. They offer some spectacular-looking journeys.

Earlier Posts from this Read-Along

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

11 Comments

  1. Thanks for the awesome pictures.
    For the magnetic problem, I found some mentions in Russian, for instance in this post: https://yura-koshel.livejournal.com/161922.html
    The caption of one picture reads,
    “The speed of water flow on Shantars is one of the highest in the world ocean – 15 km / h. A wave of 5–8 m turns back the island rivers, forms giant eddies, boiling boilers, knocks down the magnetic field (Dangerous Strait, Cape Severny, Diomede Stones and everywhere else).”

    Carol, thanks so so much for reading this book with me, you made it such an enriching experience, with your well thought comments. Let me know if down the line, you would like to do that again on another book. For me, this is book blogging at its best

    • I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you can read Russian, Emma. Are you fluent in that language too? I don’t understand how water flow can affect the magnetic field but it makes sense that the magnetic field can affect the water flow in the region. Not sure. Maybe a scientific mind will weigh in.

      I truly cherish your compliment, Emma, and appreciate your patience with adhering to a reading speed that is a minuscule fraction of your average pace. 🙂 I’d love to do this again in the fall and will definitely be in touch.

  2. Wow I had never heard of the Shantars before but the images are beautiful!

  3. Cool! So interesting about the compass. It has a Jules Verne feeling to it.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to hear other interpretations and observations on the book! Thank you for the in-depth questions and answers, as well as beautiful photos and added information. You and Emma really brought reading the story to a higher level.

    I’ve saved all my commentary for the end, so….

    I was drawn in from the beginning too, the intrigue of tracking the mysterious man, then hunting for answers during the long torturous hunt in the Taiga: what would they discover, how will they respond, who will they become when pushed to the limit. Great storytelling. Enough action to creat suspense, while using the narrative to explore the background and motivations of the characters and give room to Garsev’s inner thoughts.

    The history of that time and place was expressed in subtle ways that really gave me a feel for what that time was like. It’s easy to understand how wary you would be when your fate could be decided by something as capricious as “justice” delivered by renunciation. The characters’ reading of subtle expressions, tone, and gestures stood out to me. I wondered if it was a reflection of a society that’s very careful with what’s said and skilled at observing/ interpreting subtle clues for meaning.

    I thought the Tiaga itself was almost a character in the story, the beautiful overarching wilderness influencing the outer and the inner world of the characters. Both threatening and protecting. I really appreciated the pictures you posted, Carol. Makine did such a good job of describing it that they seemed much like my imagination.

    Overall I felt like this book was about the search for an idealized freedom or safety. Away from a malicious society and the deception of people out for personal gain. As dangerous and harsh as “another life” of survival in raw nature was, it was protected compared to the dangers of a life subject to the threats and insecurities of a life the “rag doll” recognizes. The Shatar Islands had a Shangra-la sense, a hidden, almost magical place apart from the world, or protected from it. A place “oblivious to time and the world’s cruelty”. So this is how hard it is to find peace, harmony, safety – It has to be a mystical place!

    So I understood it as more of a metaphor, of how impossible it is to escape the world of man, and the “rag-doll” existence. A commentary on how our motives as individuals and a society lead us to incessant striving to find the success/power/acquisitions that we think will make us happy, but how the purity of letting go of that fear and want is true freedom. Viassin first brings up the idea of “another life” as the “fairytale” of following in the woman’s footsteps while never catching up with her, and asserts the only freedom is not playing the game.

    Maybe that’s a little hopeless, but that attitude seems understandable to me, given how that period of renunciation would destroy interpersonal trust. When trust and compassion are destroyed I think your world becomes a very perilous place. Good/bad/right/wrong/truth don’t matter. Not that the capitalistic society was any better for Gartsev. In one society he was framed and beaten, but enterprising greed was what could have killed him.

    So what’s valuable in “another” life? Not gold (left behind in the prospectors lodge) but the beauty of nature, friendship and compassion, food, warmth, safety, and self-determination. In the end, though, despite his realization that “…it was the life we were all living that was mad! Not the two fugitives, but the world itself going off the rails trying to replicate it.” The narrator seems to have opted to “exist” not “live”. So the grand commentary on exemplary freedom doesn’t seem to be meant to be something we can attain, just an ideal to remind ourselves that letting go of the games we play, the insecurities of our inner rag-doll, is freedom.

    Thank you Carol & Emma for a great read-along!! Very fun, it added so much to the reading experience

    • Very interesting theory regarding a highly authoritative society resulting in citizens that are more skilled at interpreting expressions and gestures–basically out of necessity. I hadn’t picked up on this at all but it makes perfect sense.

      Glad you enjoyed the pictures. I find the best books often lead me to Wikipedia and google maps to learn more.

      Excellent commentary. Everyone brought a different perspective to the story. I agree that this enriched the experience. Thanks for joining!

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