Kenny called my attention to Dersu the Trapper in the 1990s, when I was highly involved in establishing a student, teacher, and citizens’ exchange between Franklin County and the Komi Region of interior of Russia, located 1000 miles east of Moscow, near the base of the Ural Mountains. I had first visited Russia in 1987, and returned in 1993 with a group of UMF students and staff for a 3-week stay with families in the city of Syktyvkar. Quite taken by the vast and wild landscape of Russia, forested with birch and conifers, crossed by great rivers, small log-cabin communities among surrounding mountains and foothills, I was in pursuit of literature of the Russian interior.
Dersu Uzala is an indigenous Nanai trapper and hunter, who makes his life in remote Ussuria, a little explored mountainous region of far eastern Siberia, bordering the Sea of Japan. Arsenyev is a Russian military officer and explorer from Moscow tasked with mapping this hitherto all but unknown region, and gathering details of a botanical and geological nature. So daunting is the landscape and so fierce the weather conditions, that Arsenyev seeks a local guide, meets Dersu, and proceeds to carry out three expeditions over a series of years, utterly dependent upon the Native for personal survival and that of his military companions, and for revelations about life on the taiga in many forms – beast, bird, fish, human.
In my initial reading I was captivated by details of the landscape and the resourcefulness of Dersu, as the expedition would make camp night after night in sharp cold, relentless rain, staggering wind; ever-present danger from flood, icy and narrow mountain passes, even stalking by a Siberian tiger. In subsequent readings I find myself attending to the remarkable relationship between the Major and Dersu. There are enormous cultural differences. At first Arsenyev asserts his university-cultivated knowledge base and privilege, but as the first and subsequent expeditions proceed, he quickly learns from Dersu’s example that there are other ways of knowing the world and navigating it, and that one’s survival rests upon such unique knowing. Dersu blurs the line between human and non-human forms, as in regarding water as having human qualities, and in seeking to see the world as creatures of the wild see it.
At one point Arsenyev marvels at the compassion and fidelity he witnesses in Dersu, confessing in his notes that once he had not believed that a person of Dersu’s ethnicity and circumstance could be so wise, and could possess a rich emotional dimension to life. The two become close friends, a remarkable development for the times. The demands their respective cultures make upon them, even in the context of their mutual regard and commitment to the other’s well being, contribute a dimension to the story as daunting as the Siberian landscape.