It’s a cold life if you don’t drink vodka

Siberia by Nikolai Maslov. Translated by Blake Ferris with Lisa Barocas Anderson. Soft Skull Press, 2006. 9781933368030. 98pp.

The story behind this graphic novel is so central to understanding it that it’s front and center on the back cover and it’s recounted in detail in the afterword. (I wonder if I may have tried and failed to read it when it came out, because I rarely read the back of books or afterwords.) A 50-year-old Russian night watchman approached a bookseller in Moscow, who was also the editor of Asterix in Russia, and shyly showed him three panels (according to back of the book) or three pages (according to the afterword) of a graphic novel he’d started working on. The watchman asked the editor to finance the rest. And he did, paying the man what he would have earned at his job for three years while he worked on it. The book was eventually published in France and, apparently, elsewhere. This is that book.

It’s the story of a young man with slight artistic ambitions and a bit of talent growing up in Siberia. In 1971 he’s finishing high school, just about to discover drinking and French Impressionists and that there’s little place for art after he’s drafted and sent to Mongolia. It’s a stark existence, sometimes violent, usually alcohol soaked, and it doesn’t offer many opportunities for self expression. Art needs to serve the state, after all. And his kind of does — the soft pencils he draws with are simple and elegantly straightforward. He never dwells on the hopelessness or pitilessness of his life — or maybe that’s me reading too much into it. Or maybe that’s Maslov setting us up for the small moments of beauty, the empty landscapes and meeting his wife. When he eventually goes crazy and is institutionalized, it feels like just another day.

It’s hard to believe that comics are so uncommon in Russia that Maslov had to figure out the medium entirely by himself, as indicated in the afterword, but maybe it’s true. This certainly feels like understated genius, like a book that had to be drawn.

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