Over the course of eight months in 2017, she traveled to all these places, seeking answers to one unspoken question: What is life like when you live next door to an aggressive bully? ... Again and again, this young Norwegian journalist listens to weary-hearted accounts of survival and loss in the midst of war, displacement, ethnic and racial enmity, famine, and genocide ... Her linguistic abilities — she speaks English, Russian, French and several other languages — often allow her to talk with, or sometimes eavesdrop on, ordinary people. Despite sometimes considerable privation, nearly everyone she meets is welcoming, though often cautiously guarded in what they say ... so well translated by Kari Dickson that you’d think it was written in English — still has much of Eastern and Northern Europe to cover. In Belarus, Fatland alights in Vitebsk, birthplace of the artist Marc Chagall, then later hears sickening accounts of Nazi atrocities in the former Minsk ghetto. Finally heading north toward home, she quietly closes the circle by kayaking along the periphery between Norway and Russia ... should be enjoyed in small chunks, if only because of a certain sameness in the kind of stories it contains. All in all, though, Erika Fatland deserves both applause and thanks for this impressive mix of history, reportage and travel memoir.
Officially, the book is a travelogue-cum-cultural history, tracing the author’s journey across the 14 countries bordering the world’s largest country. (Of them, only the author’s native Norway was never occupied by Russia.) In practice, however, the book is a hauntingly lyrical meditation to the contingencies of history, the sheer arbitrariness of dividing lines and border posts, of namesakes forgotten and remembered, of successful and unsuccessful wars ... Ms. Fatland sets out, she tells us (via Kari Dickson’s archly smooth, British-inflected translation), 'to understand a country and its people from the outside, from the perspective of its neighbours,' to identify a quintessential 'Russianness' through an investigation of the often-liminal spaces of its periphery ... What Ms. Fatland succeeds in doing, to the book’s credit, is both greater in scale and more intimate than her stated aim. Through a series of slickly told, vignette-style chapters, moving from the uncanny valley of North Korean package tours to drunken revelry in the Georgian mountains, Ms. Fatland offers less an account of Russianness than of its subversion: a polyphonic vision of often-arbitrary identities, histories and voices. The idea that we can speak meaningfully about capital-h History comes across, in Ms. Fatland’s wry telling, as faintly absurd ... Borders, for the people Ms. Fatland interviews along her journey, are less about identity than about practicality ... s. Fatland’s greatest gift, after all, is listening and saying nothing, allowing the people she meets to reveal themselves in meticulously rendered dramatic monologues, capturing their tics, eccentricities and detailed personal histories. She revels in the complexity of her interviewees as individuals, not examples.
In this ambitious travelogue, journalist Fatland documents her multiyear odyssey along Russia’s 60,932-kilometer-long border with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and North Korea ... colorful accounts of her experiences and observations cruising the ice-crusted Northeast Passage, riding horseback in Mongolia, and kayaking the waterways between Norway and Russia. She also provides a dense history of each place she visits, including sites of recent conflict, such as Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and weaves her travel narrative with stories of people whose lives have been affected by Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Armchair adventurers and Russian history buffs are in for a treat.