A review of The Border by Erika Fatland, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson
There is a definite sense of journey’s end on reaching the final pages of Erika Fatland’s The Border – for the reader as well as for the author herself. Not only is the book large in size (almost six hundred pages in hardback is certainly not to be sniffed at), but it is vast in scope, and written with a meticulous attention to detail that requires unwavering concentration at several points. At the same time – thanks in no small part to Kari Dickson’s pitch-perfect translation of Fatland’s strong, often sardonic voice – I felt as though I could have gone on reading this book for much longer. As much as it gave me, there was always more I wanted to know: a sign, surely, of descriptive travel writing of the very best variety.
Having dipped in and out of The Border over a period of several weeks, my reading journey was perhaps longer than others, but still nothing compared to Fatland’s twenty-thousand-kilometre odyssey around the border of Russia, the journey that provided the impetus for this book. As she explains in the opening chapter, the border actually extends over 60,932 kilometres, which makes it considerably longer than the circumference of the earth (that comes in at just 40,075 kilometres). Fourteen countries surround Russia, from North Korea in the south-east to Norway in the far north-west, and Fatland sets out to travel through each of them, plus the Northwest Passage – not always along the border itself, but visiting places that she hopes will give her a sense both of the countries as individual states, and also of their relationship with Russia. The premise is simple, but unique: to describe a country without setting foot in it.
The idea, apparently, came to Fatland following a dream in which she ‘was wandering around on a vast map. [Her] footsteps followed a wavy red line: the border of Russia’. If this sounds a little too esoteric, there’s no need to be concerned: as a narrator and traveller, Fatland proves herself to be clear-sighted and hardy, going about her adventures and then relaying them to us in a tone that brooks no nonsense. Though deeply interested in philosophical questions surrounding national identity and the nature of borders, which she describes correctly as ‘both very real and highly abstract’, Fatland never loses sight of the ordinary, be that the day-to-day life of people she meets or the countless small absurdities she encounters on the road. For a book dealing with such a large country and questions, The Border is surprisingly – refreshingly – rooted in the mundane.
This eye for detail and caustic sense of humour is what makes Fatland’s writing so accessible, and quite distinctive within the travel writing genre. Steering away from grand descriptions of landscapes – though she does do scenery well, she keeps it brief and atmospheric – she focuses instead on telling people’s stories, recounting historical events and relating her impressions of each country in a rapid-fire burst of personal narrative. Small scenes are telling – dodgy hotel rooms, drawn-out border crossings – and though always keen to strike up a conversation with people, Fatland seems to enter each new country with a fair amount of reserve. As a result, she is just as likely to recount a disappointing meal as she is to describe an ornate hilltop church, an approach that cleaves to the realities of travel and provides a credible flavour of place. More than this, it draws the reader into the story – in sharing jokes with us about bizarre conversations or frightening incidents, she helps us to become part of the scene, rather than mere observers.
Fatland, who speaks eight languages and is an anthropologist by training, clearly has a nose for the facts and can draw stories out of her interviewees that range from entertaining to tragic, but she also excels at making complex history simple to grasp. The job is not to be envied: Russia is a complicated country (and large, as mentioned), which comes with countless episodes of conflict and political upheaval to untangle, not to mention notable figures with very similar names. Though of course she doesn’t have the page count to do any more than sketch the bare bones of history, Fatland gets straight to the heart of Russia’s relationship with each of its smaller neighbours, selecting the most important events that bind them and explaining these in lucid prose. Despite having travelled through several of these countries myself, I learned a lot more about them from this book.
Notwithstanding Fatland’s evidently strong grip on the situation – a level-headedness that shines through in her writing and made me feel she would be the perfect travel companion – she does occasionally lose sight of her goal, giving unequal weight to countries or events that seem, in the end, to have little to do with Russia. This is not in itself a problem – the countries she visits are all fascinating, and of course the narrative should pay more attention to them than to their neighbour – but the net result is a book that leaves even the author with ‘more questions than answers’. Perhaps the only true response to the question of what it is like to share a border with Russia is a rather understated line from the very first chapter: ‘Being Russia’s neighbour has never been easy.’ The Border proves beyond doubt that it hasn’t, but also gives us to understand how Russia and its neighbours – and relations between them – continue to shape global politics today.
‘The Russian Empire was so vast that even the tsar was not sure where it ended,’ writes Fatland, but merciless expansion is not the method she has plumped for. Despite its enormous size, The Border feels relatively pared back, not to say sparse in certain sections – I could have done with more on Georgia and the Baltic states, for instance. Yet she is wise not to overwhelm her reader, and in other sections makes excellent judgement calls: North Korea, for example, can only be visited on an official guided tour that is planned to the minute, with the result that ‘travelogues from North Korea are often very similar’. Recognising this, she has stripped down these chapters to consist mainly of conversations amid snatches of history – elements that really are unique to her journey.
Travelling, researching and writing The Border was a monumental undertaking, and in many other writers’ hands it would surely have failed as a book. Yet Fatland displays warmth, intelligence, humanity and a great sense of humour, all of which Kari Dickson has flawlessly transported into English for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It didn’t teach me as much as I’d expected about Russia, but a lot about history, politics and, most importantly, life in fourteen very different countries. Fatland deserves the highest praise for The Border:an illuminating, compassionate and entertaining journey that I for one would be happy to go on again.