The Idiot: Mother Russia is famous for many things speakable and unspeakable, including the Mr. Stalin's Gulag, Mr. Lenin, excellent vodka, and lately, Mr. Putin. It's also the home of many millions of heavy smokers (very friendly), and a very long train ride. In June 2003, my wife and I began a journey to live out a long-held dream of mine (you'll notice I said mine, not necessarily hers): To ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad from one end of the line to the other, meanwhile, killing time (there was lots of it to kill) reading Mr. Dostoevsky's ponderous masterpiece about the Christ-like epileptic, Prince Myshkin. Here are some images from the trip (from top to bottom): Terry and I about to board the train in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, a typical Siberian farm in June, the city of Irkutsk itself, me eating peanut butter and crackers, drinking vodka, and watching Siberia go by; a view of our embarrassingly pleasant and bourgeois first-class cabin (second class passengers sleep four to a cabin, stacked up on each other); a smokey, smoked-fish market on Lake Baikal where, for reasons known only to them, newly weds still wearing gowns and tuxes, posed for pictures; passengers taking a sun-break during a stop; and, sealing a deal with a vendor selling meat-stuffed ( a Russian fellow passenger opined that it could perhaps be rat) rolls on the platform. Reading a great Russian writer while clanking and swaying and screeching across the vast wilderness that is most of Siberia was instructive. First, on the front cover of my edition of The Idiot (Modern Library Classics), there's a plug by the dead, white, brilliant, and tragic woman writer, Virginia Woolf. She says, "Nothing is outside Dostoevsky's province. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading." She is someone we can take seriously and so we must reconsider the post-modernist, feminist dismissal of the wisdom of deceased Caucasian male scribblers--all but Hemingway, one would assume, whose sins are manifestly unforgivable.
In any event, the trip took six days and six nights with a two day pause in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, situated close by Lake Baikal. Siberia, at least this Southern part of it, turned out not to be the desolate tundra of my National Geographic readings, but rather an endless land of forests and savanna, larch and birch trees, and small peasant farms pressed up against the tracks. Though it was mid-June, the crops had not yet sprouted and the gardens were all neat rows of carefully tilled and prepared gray soil. We saw few cars, some horses, and one motorcycle with a side car. The air was crisp and clear and the views from the speeding train window (I found myself pressing my nose up against the pane like a kid in front of a candy store) very fine. In some places, large tracts of woods were aflame and in fact, Irkutsk was under a pall of smoke for the entire time we were there. We were told it is an annual phenomenon brought on by the summer draught.
Sleeping was at first a problem. At regular intervals, the train's brakes shrieked, and then the train would slam against itself, jolting the dreamer awake. New passengers would board at each stop and their loud voices and cigarette smoke wafted in to us through and under the door. This was a problem the first night. By the middle of the second day, I realized that it didn't matter if we didn't sleep well at night because we could sleep any time we wanted to, our seat serving also as our berth. So long naps became de rigueur, usually soon after a lunch in the dining car washed down with red wine (we were generally the only customers in the dining car, the average Russian preferring to save money by buying food on the platforms during stops).
Six days without a shower was a concern. We couldn't easily wash our hair (hence the hat), and had to do with using a wash cloth and a bar of soap while standing up in the swaying bathroom. Then, on the train from Irkutsk to Moscow, glory be, there was a real, stand-up, stand-alone shower. Though the water was just a trickle, it was warm, and as far as I could tell, we were the only ones who used it.
If one is going to lose at chess, it may as well be to an attractive young Russian woman on the Trans-Siberian. Over confident after a couple of easy victories against a young Brit traveling alone (he said he had gotten his girlfriend pregnant so he dyed his hair blond, and headed for Siberia), and my wife (who later beat me without remorse), I took on the woman who was, if not exactly our guide, charged with making certain we got off the train as scheduled in Moscow and not in some Siberian logging camp. She was very bright, spoke excellent English, and earned $75 a month teaching at a college in Irkutsk. When, early on in the game, she took my queen in an effortless offensive, I prepared my tail for placing between my legs. Fortunately, she was as gracious in victory as she was charming in conversation.
Did I read the whole thing, finally, all of The Idiot? No. After all the expense of buying the book (it's an inch and three-quarters thick), stuffing it in my travel bag, and lugging it around the world, there was just too much to look at out the train's windows. After all, I could read Dostoevsky anytime, but I would only be witnessing Dostoevsky's Russia passing by once. I did make some progress, but now, four years later, the book still sits largely unread, on a bookshelf in my classroom. It was suggested later, and I guess I agree, that it would have been better to have explored the writings of some modern-day Russian authors while I moved across this conflicted nation that is struggling to emerge after the Cold War. Though we know, as writers, that Nastasya, Aglaia, and the awful Ganya are universal characters whose motives and emotions are bone-deep in all of us, they will have to wait until I am less distracted.
Douglas Arvidson is a past winner of the WICE/Paris Transcontinental International Short Story competition. His short fiction has been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the United States and he was recently invited to be a staff writer for the Prague Revue, a cutting-edge, online literary journal (http://bit.ly/1mMT6ZC). The novels in his fantasy series, The Eye of the Eye of Stallion, include The Face in Amber, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, and A Drop of Wizard's Blood. His new novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year national awards and as a finalist in three categories in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards: Action Adventure Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. It has become part of the pantheon of Pacific literature and is now included in school literature programs. Brothers of the Fire Star is an adventure story set in the Pacific during World War II and concerns two boys of different races and cultures who escape the island of Guam in a small sailboat when the Japanese army invades. They must then struggle to survive as they master the secrets of the ancient Pacific navigators. Appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers, Brothers of the Fire Star is available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com (http://amzn.to/1j3axVk) and Crossquarter.com. Visit the author's website: douglasarvidson.com