For this week’s Big Read, Richard Gwyn explores the return to animism in two new books, In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin and When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Solà, which offer a window into a system of belief in which humans and other animals, plants, fungi and diverse organisms survive in interconnected and independent ways.
Sometimes a book comes along that enhances your way of being in the world: for two such books to fall into your hands, in serendipitous collusion, is a thing to marvel at, and perhaps even to write about. Whatever their differences, and they are legion, the two books under review, both written by young women — one a memoir by an anthropologist, the other a piece of fiction that reads like a fable — together provide a thorough dismantling of the notion of genre. But more importantly, both books open a window onto systems of belief in which humans and other animals, plants, fungi and diverse organisms survive and thrive in interconnected and interdependent ways, consciously or otherwise, reflecting an unexpected harmony at the heart of lived experience.
The first story begins with its author lying wounded on a mountainside in a remote corner of eastern Siberia. It is here that the French anthropologist Nastassja Martin is living, among the Even people of Kamchatka, a community of nomadic hunters and erstwhile reindeer herders. She has just had a confrontation with a bear that has left her close to death. She hears the bear’s teeth closing, the sound of her jaw and skull cracking, feels the darkness inside the bear’s mouth, the moist heat of his breath. In a split-second decision that saves her life, she has the presence of mind to swing an ice axe through the bear’s leg, and he flees, stumbling away across the high steppe.
After eight hours of waiting out in the open, and with the help of a friend who raises the alarm, a Russian helicopter appears and takes Nastassja (or Nastinka/Nastya, as she is known to the locals) to the nearby village of Klyuchi. Here, an old woman begins stitching up her head, which by some miracle has not been entirely crushed. But just then, a ‘fat, sweaty man’ bursts into the room, and in a gesture that foreshadows much that Nastinka will have to endure in the months to follow, attempts to photograph her, so that her ruined face can be saved for posterity. She is enraged, and wants to hurl herself at the man, ‘tear his paunch open, rip out his guts, and nail his damn phone to his hand’. Fortunately for both of them, she is too weak to move. Taking matters in hand, the old woman pushes the man out of the room and locks the door. After a second helicopter ride, Nastinka emerges from unconsciousness to find herself stripped naked and strapped to a bed in a vast and decrepit room, a tube running from her nose to her throat, a tracheotomy stuck to her neck. She is in the intensive care unit of the military hospital at Petropavlovsk, a crumbling Soviet era building, where she undergoes the first of several operations. Here she is attended by a malevolent teenage nurse who injects mashed food through a tube into her stomach, wanting revenge, as Nastinka imagines, for everything that is wrong with her life. Nastinka feels as though she is at the very limits of human endurance, and despite pleading with her carer-captors, she remains strapped to the bed (‘to protect you from yourself,’ she is told). Meanwhile, the head doctor, dripping with gold jewellery, seduces the female nursing staff, nightly, one by one, in a room adjoining the ward; the moans of their lovemaking reverberate through the ward, empty apart from Nastinka. It feels as though she is in Bluebeard’s castle, and the story unfolds like a warped fairytale, or a David Lynch screenplay transplanted to deepest Siberia. When Nastinka demonstrates good behaviour and is eventually released from her bonds, she is rewarded by Bluebeard, who wheels in a small television, which is set up at the foot of her bed. As though steered by some perverse law of symmetry, a film is showing that tells the story of a young woman called Nastinka who is desperately searching for her lover in the forest: he has been transformed into a bear and Nastinka does not recognise him. Unable to make her see him for who he is, her lover dies of grief. This is all too much for the real Nastinka, who cannot help but compare this tale with her own, given the fact that among the Even community with whom she lives, she has already — before the attack — been given the name of matukha, or ‘she-bear’. It feels as if she has entered a world of mirrors, or else an endless spiral in which she is forever to be confronted by her ursine other. She bursts into tears and the television is taken away.
As Nastassja Martin, she is interrogated by a Russian FSB (secret services) agent, on the basis that she has spent most of her time in a militarised zone occupied only by Even hunters, who live in a state of almost complete self-sufficiency. She spends three hours with the agent, who is the first, but not the last person to intimate that to be an anthropologist is to be a spy. Her two families turn up; Nastassja’s birth family from France, and Nastinka’s adopted Even family from the forests of Kamchatka. The two groups of her loved ones look nothing like one another, speak different languages, and come from different worlds; the two worlds between which she is riven. One of the nurses looking after her tells her: ‘Nastya, you might almost say there are two different women occupying this room.’ An astute observation, but perhaps more accurately there are three of her, if you include the bear.
Arriving in Paris for further treatment, Nastassja finds herself at the centre of a Franco-Russian medical cold war. The surgeons at the Salpêtrière hospital want to take the ex-Soviet metal plate from her jaw and replace it with a shiny new French one. Meanwhile, she receives a visit from the hospital psychotherapist who asks her how she is feeling, ‘because, you know, the face is our identity.’ Nastassja looks at the therapist, aghast. She asks her if this is the kind of information she offers all the patients at the hospital’s maxillofacial clinic. She wants to tell the therapist that she has ‘spent years collecting accounts of the multiple presences that can co-exist within a single body, precisely in order to subvert this concept of singular, uniform, unidimensional identity,’ but in the end relents and replies simply: ‘I think it’s a bit more complicated.’ She replays the encounter with the bear every evening, before falling asleep, and she dreams terrible dreams, in which she meets bears that ‘loom tall, brown and menacing’. She is adrift between worlds again, between sleep and waking, between ‘here’ and ‘there’. While appreciating the narcotic release of sleep she wants to return to the Arctic night, to be without sun or electricity. She wants to stare into the darkness, to go underground, to speak to her bear.
During her long recovery from ‘the bear’s kiss’, as she fondly calls it, she interrogates the events that will lead her towards an understanding of what has happened to her; and to this end unspools an attentive and passionate account of the people and animals amongst whom she has lived. Ultimately, too, she shares her confusion, her inability to decipher the timeless puzzle with which she is confronted. She finds herself at the very limits of interpretation.
Central to the cosmology of Siberian hunting peoples such as the Even, and to hunter-gatherers in general, is a belief in the interconnectedness of relations between humans, animals and the landscape they share. (It should be pointed out that Martin’s book was titled Croire aux fauves — ‘To believe in wild beasts’ — in the original French, which gives a far better idea of what it is about than the rather anodyne or ambivalent In the Eye of the Wild.) Martin studied under the French anthropologist Philippe Descola, and her chosen area of study, like her mentor’s, is animism, which presupposes that all material phenomena have agency, and that there exists no categorical distinction between the invisible (including the so-called ‘spiritual’) and the material world, any more than there is between the world of humans, animals, and their shared environment. In an influential essay, the British anthropologist Tim Ingold, one of the foremost authorities on animism, has suggested that among hunters and gatherers there is little or no conceptual distance between ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’. ‘And indeed’, he goes on to say, ‘we find nothing corresponding to the Western concept of nature in hunter-gatherer representations, for they see no essential difference between the ways one relates to human and to non-human constituents of the environment.’ Needless to say, such a concept plays havoc with the established dichotomy between ‘humanity’, on the one hand, and ‘nature’ on the other. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ suggests that we do not consider ourselves, as humans, to be fully a part of it; and this disengagement lies at the very root of our current ecological crisis.
In another reading of her story, Nastassja Martin has paid a visit to the underworld, and like Persephone, she has been forced to find her way back. She compares herself with ‘all the creatures that have plunged into the dark and uncharted realms of alterity and have returned metamorphosed.’ This mythical substratum is evident throughout her story, and even in the book’s dedication, which reads: ‘To all creatures of metamorphosis, both here and there, the ‘here’ and ‘there’ standing for the worlds inhabited, respectively, by Martin’s Western readers and the indigenous inhabitants of those circumpolar regions where she has carried out her fieldwork, in Alaska and eastern Siberia. The notion of metamorphosis lies at the heart of her account, and at once invites a radical understanding of animism. As noted, Nastinka has already been named matukha (she-bear) by her Even hosts, before she has her fight with the bear. Afterwards she is medka, ‘marked by the bear’ and therefore half-woman, half-bear. This also means, she is told, that from now on she dreams the bear’s dreams as well as her own. How to accommodate such a belief within a ‘rational’, ‘objective’ or ‘scientific’ Western epistemology? How to do so without placing these very descriptors within quotation marks? Or without taking into consideration Nastinka’s almost inevitable sense of approbation, or even pride, in the acknowledgment by the indigenous community that she is endowed with such qualities?
Her Even friend Vasya tells Nastinka that the bear attacked her because she looked at it, because ‘bears cannot stand to look in the eyes of a human, because they see their own soul there.’ And that moment — in which her eyes locked with the bear’s —keeps returning to her. None of us, at any time, can rule out the possibility, proposed by Martin, that the gaze that passes between two creatures — human or non-human — saves them from themselves ‘by projecting them into the alterity of the being who looks back’, or even that in the instant there might occur a co-mingling or entanglement of souls. In Martin’s words, when she and the bear lock eyes, something is confirmed that the attentive reader might have suspected all along: ‘I know that this encounter was planned. I had marked out the path that would lead me into the bear’s mouth, to his kiss, long ago.’ Why else would she have ‘plunged into battle with the bear . . . like a Fury’? Why else would she have bared her teeth at him? And I wonder why the author leaves it to the third or fourth recap of her encounter with the bear before revealing such a significant detail: ‘He shows me his teeth; he must be afraid. I am frightened too, but as I can’t run away, I imitate him. I show him my teeth. And everything moves into fast-forward. We slam into each other, he knocks me off balance my hands are in his fur he bites my face then my head I can feel my bones cracking I think I am dying but I’m not.’
In reviewing In the Eye of the Wild for the New York Review, Leslie Jamison argues that among other things the book is concerned with translation: ’the desire to translate trauma into meaning, or animal consciousness into legible interior life’, and this latter point lies at the heart of Martin’s project, as I understand it. She translates herself through a painful process of self-interrogation, and in her escape from the madness that lies at the heart of the post-industrial Western world. She mentions it first when quoting Artaud: ‘We have to get out of the insanity our civilisation is creating. But drugs, alcohol, depression and in fine madness and/or death are no solution; we must find something else. This is what I sought in the forests of the Far North, and only partially found it, and it is what I’m still chasing now.’ Martin concedes that her decision to become an anthropologist was, effectively, a form of escape from that insanity, but one which could not so easily be resolved: ‘I learned one thing: no matter how it appears, the world is collapsing simultaneously everywhere. The only difference is that in Tvayan, they live knowingly amid the wreckage.’ I wonder to what extent that is true of other hunter-gatherer communities throughout the world? Reading Joseph Zárate’s harrowing account of the ordeals of the Asháninka and Awajún peoples of Amazonia in their recent fight against oil companies, illegal loggers and gold prospectors, it is hard to think how one might not ‘live knowingly among the wreckage’ when one’s very world is being torn apart before one’s eyes.
During her hospital sojourns and later recuperation, staying first with her mother and then at her own home in the French Alps, Martin realises, four months after her fight with the bear, that she has to return to Tyavan, to her second family, because being ‘here’ will not provide her with the answers she is seeking back ‘there’. She believes in kairos — the exact and appropriate moment for something to occur — and she will claim that her encounter with the bear, too, was a matter of kairos: It happened, as we have seen, because it had to happen, because of who she was, or rather, what she had become. She has to return, because the world ‘there’ has changed her, and she has to uncover her own tracks, to make sense of it all. But her quest is more than intellectual enquiry; it is a headlong plunge into the animism she has set out to both describe and inhabit. Anthropology is not simply something she ‘does’, it constitutes the very essence of who and what she is: and herein lies the paradox, as well as the sadness and beauty of Nastinka’s story. Because she is medka she had to go back to the forest, but she cannot be a part of the Even world any more than she can be a part of her own. And while she can’t stop ‘doing anthropology’ in either place, neither can she stop being the subject of her own ethnography. As she says, it was anthropology that saved her, provided her with an ‘escape route . . . a place where I could express myself in this world, where I could become myself.’ She is caught in between, caught in precisely the reflexive duality she writes of with regard to the myth of Persephone. Thus ‘anthropology’ offers her a kind of release, and a purpose; but it is never quite enough, and it is not an identity that convinces all — or any — of those she lives amongst. She is brought face to face with this hostility most sharply in an encounter with Valyerka, the family member who openly dislikes her — and who tells her: ‘Anthropologist, spy, same thing. Don’t expect anything from me, you’ll not get a word.’
All of which lends particular pathos to the moment when Daria, her Even host and close companion (and surrogate mother), says to her, somewhat mischievously, ‘And how is it done, the anthropology?’ To which Nastinka can only reply, ‘You’re bothering me with your difficult questions’. Eventually she gives it a go: ‘I don’t know how it’s done, Daria. I know how I do it . . . I go close, I am gripped, I move away again or I escape. I come back, I grasp, I translate. What comes from others, goes through my body, and then goes who knows where.’ So she ends, as she promised she would, in uncertainty: but it is an uncertainty of the deepest and most rewarding kind, and because of it the book sings with a strange and vibrant wisdom of its own.
Elsewhere, in her work as ethnographer, Nastassja Martin has chronicled the lives and beliefs of people amongst whom she has worked in Alaska (which she recorded in her first book Les Ames Sauvages). One of these beliefs is related through the words of Clarence, an ‘old Gwich’in wise man’ from Fort Yukon in Alaska, the author’s friend and interlocutor for all the years she lived in his village. According to Clarence, she tells us, there is ‘a boundless realm that occasionally shows at the surface of the present, a dream time which absorbs every new fragment of history as we go on creating them.’ To my understanding, central to this belief is the idea that the quotidian world we inhabit is underpinned by, or overlaps with, another, adjacent realm, which remains largely unseen, hidden behind a veil or membrane, and into which one might accidentally — or voluntarily, through shamanic induction and/or the use of psychotropic drugs — tip or venture. This underpins the belief systems of many indigenous communities, and is a core tenet of animism (which has correspondences in beliefs such as Pantheism or Paganism). We inhabit this world, but it is only one of many, and underlying all of them is that other, invisible or shadow world into which you might slide or tip from time to time when the separating veil is temporarily pulled aside.
It is this ‘boundless realm’ into which we are invited by Irene Solà, the Catalan author of When I Sing, Mountains Dance. In this gem of a book, Solà reinvents the polyphonic novel, with narrators that include, alongside the human occupants, a roe-buck, a dog, a quartet of dead witches, a batch of chanterelle mushrooms, the clouds, even the massif of the Pyrenees itself. And it’s surprising how easily one gets into the swing of it: ‘We arrived with full bellies. Painfully full. Black bellies, burdened with cold, dark water, lightning bolts, and thunderclaps’, claim the clouds at the outset. And here is the dog, Lluna, reflecting on her owner’s sex life: ‘And their sexes grow and turn red and the smell they give off is even better now and more moist . . . and their hands are everywhere and the sounds are everywhere, and I want the smell to get deep inside my muzzle and stay there forever.’ These occasional non-human interventions serve to illustrate that human life is throughly embedded within an animistic universe, wherein every being has as much significance as the next, mushroom, mosquito or man, all of them are bound within the nurturing — but also sometimes terrifying — environment of the forest and the high Pyrenees.
Slowly, the story unfolds, each chapter like a small symphony. The clouds carry a storm, and within the storm a lightning bolt that strikes a man dead. The man, Domènec, has been collecting chanterelle mushrooms and attempting to rescue a calf that was tangled in wire. He leaves behind a widow, Sió, and two small children; daughter Mia, and son Hilari, the latter only two months old. After the villagers take away Domènec’s burnt body and plant a cross in the place the lightning drilled into him, the witches drop by from time to time and piss on the cross. Such is their role; to sully and enliven, to corrupt and to enhance.
The family undergoes another tragedy when, at the age of twenty, Hilari is shot dead by his best friend Jaume, ‘the Giants’ son, all shoulders, small, dark, round head.’ Jaume is also Mia’s lover, and the two of them share naked trysts deep in the forest. Although the shooting is an accident, under the Franco regime Jaume the Giants’ son is deemed a murderer, and goes to prison for five years (had he walked the other way down the mountain into France, he would have faced no such charges). He is so shattered with guilt and shame that he refuses Mia’s prison visits and cannot bring himself to face her on his release from jail, settling into life as an itinerant grill-house chef, a brawler and a drinker; a man on a short fuse. The tale spins on its axis, bringing in a cast of characters and creatures, and the ghosts of men and women who dwell in the forest, among them poor deceased Hilari himself, who now composes poems of solemn and irreverent beauty from beyond the grave. There are other dead roaming the forest too, such as little Palomita whose leg was blown off by a bomb in the civil war — an actual event that took place in January, 1939, when Italian war planes bombed the small town of Garriga, near Barcelona. In the homes around here memories of civil war are never as distant as the years that separate them might suggest, nor are the relics of that war, whether old grenades discovered in a field, or the memories of a son kidnapped by retreating Republicans, and executed ‘just in case’, or of a daughter whose throat is slit as a punishment for emptying a pot of boiling soup onto the heads of some Fascist recruits.
In the original text, Palomita’s account is written in Spanish, which marks it out from the rest of the book, which is in Catalan. She is taken into France but dies in hospital and her ghost returns to the mountains — because it is ‘her place’ — and haunts the mountain forest through which her family fled, and which she has grown to love. Here she occasionally sees the four witches, with whom she frolics, and other lost souls who passed by on the same route into France, like so many of the many thousands of refugees fleeing from the war, and she sees Domènec, Hilari’s father, with his long dirty hair; he says nothing, but eats dirt and digs with his twisted fingernails for roots and worms. Other residents of the forest are more vocal: the chanterelle mushrooms, for example, which ‘have been here always and will be here always . . . Because the spores of one are the spores of all of us. The story of one is the story of us all. Because the woods belong to those who cannot die.’ Eternity, here, is ‘a thing worn lightly’, and the mushrooms proclaim themselves as part of the eternal cycle shared between men and women and beasts and plants.
There is a striking consistency of tone in this short novel, even more apparent on a second reading. I was struck also by what a fine translation it is, as not only does Mara Faye Lethem have to tackle the inventive language Solà uses to represent the forces of nature, and the challenges this gives rise to, but also to ensure that the English version replicates, to some extent, the closely-woven and intimate texture of the Catalan, and to ensure that all the elements — animal, vegetable and mineral — fall into place within the bigger scheme of things. In one chapter we are treated to an outsider’s perspective on the little world ‘up above’ when a hiker from Barcelona turns up, with an idealised picture of the lives led by the locals. How phony and trite he sounds, exclaiming in wonderment: ‘Man, I love walking through these mountains! I just love it so much . . . and the town is lovely as a postcard . . . the butcher’s shop is so authentic. Truly frozen in time.’ Unfortunately we can likely hear our own tourist voices ventriloquised through this character, who has to concentrate if he is to understand the accents of the locals. He is rudely turned away when he asks for food, and cannot understand why he is treated like a stranger, an outsider. But then he is one, and so are we. ‘Life up here is really tragic’, he muses. And he is right.
These mountains and valleys of the Pyrenees lend themselves to strange tales, and at times it is hard to distinguish between what happens and what merely might have happened, as Joan Didion once wrote. Walking not far from the territory of this novel with my daughter a few years ago, on a hot summer’s morning, we came upon a French nun, in full black habit and hiking boots: ‘I have lost my way’, she told us, an utterance that seemed especially poignant, given her calling. Since we were going the same way as her, and knew the path, we accompanied her down the mountain, and she told us the story of how, ten years before, having just turned thirty, she had suddenly found God, had left her high-powered job in PR at a multinational in Paris, had joined the order of the Little Sisters of Jesus and gone to work with the poor and destitute in Palestine. She was on a two-week release, staying at her order’s convent in the Pyrenees. She went out walking every day, she said, whatever the weather. When we parted ways, she had another twenty kilometres to cover before returning to her convent, and when she had gone, it was as if the encounter had been a dream. As it does now, retelling it.
What does Solà’s many-voiced story succeed in telling us, with its lunatics, loafers and wise women, such as Neus, the exorcist, who calls on Mia to get whatever it is out of her house. ‘You no longer belong here,’ she tells the unwanted presence. ‘You have to go. You have to find the path.’ But it is not only the house that is occupied territory: the mountain and the forest also harbour spirits, ghosts, and wild beasts that crave company and understanding, if not something darker. For this is not only a disappearing world in the most obvious sense, where the old traditions and ways of life are dying out, but a world on the brink of cataclysm for all the other reasons with which we are all too familiar.
In Solà’s world too, coincidentally, bears have a role to play, and even though the Pyrenean bear came close to extinction towards the end of the last century, its remaining stock was enhanced by the introduction of the genetically similar Slovenian bear in the 1990s and numbers are now up to around seventy, though they are not to be found as far east as the part of Catalonia where the novel is set, near the town of Camprodon. One of the chapters in Solà’s novel recounts the festival of the bear, that continues to this day in Prats de Molló, just over the French border, and in which the one chosen to dress up as the bear has to leap and shout and make as if to carry off a man like a sheep: ‘Beneath the weight of my immense, stinking body, savage and dirty, he flails . . . A bear has to be ferocious. A bear has to be feared and he must do his job well. Crazed with so much fear and so much rage and so much loneliness and so much humanity. The bear has to forget what he was before and what he will be after and just be a beast, become just the bear and the bear forever.’
So it plays out, this ancient ancestral rite, to celebrate the time of the bear, when the land was shared out between bears and wolves and people, each trepidatious on the other’s patch. The bear in this drama grabs a man’s body, ‘drinks his fear’, grabs a woman, ‘drinks in her panic.’ The bears, we are told, will reconquer the village just as one day they will reconquer the mountain, when the time comes. All of this enacted by the villagers, roaring drunk, their bodies smeared in soot and oil.
When we finally catch up with Jaume, he is working as a cook in a roadhouse bar, and reluctantly tells his story to his boss, Núria. His nickname here, unsurprisingly is ‘the bear’. He tells Núria he’s from the Pyrenees (‘like the bears’), and he’s done time for killing his best friend. He tells the story of how his gun went off by accident when they were hunting, and how his friend died in his arms and it took him hours to carry him down the mountain. How he was sent to prison, how his father died during his second year inside. ‘It’s like a goddamn well. You shouldn’t open the door to memories, because there’s nothing good inside there.’ Which brings to mind a passage from Martin’s book, when she quotes Pascal Quignard approvingly: ‘Freeing ourselves not of the existence of the past but from its ties.’
And, echoing passages from When I Sing, Martin writes: ‘There are other beings lying in wait in my memory; maybe there are also some under my skin, in my bones. This thought is terrifying, because I do not want to be an occupied territory’; and again, after her meeting with the bear, wondering what the ‘next phase might be,’ she writes: ‘Four months and the forest there waiting. The beauty of this thing that happened — happened to me — is that I know everything without knowing anything anymore.’ Thus her experience of the attack and all that follows has also turned into something beautiful, albeit ineffable.
Towards the end of When I Sing, we are swept up in the ineluctable sadness of all that cannot be undone and of an accompanying sense of release, as Mia asserts that being sorry for something and forgiving somebody might happen at the same time, might be two sides of the same coin, and one’s sorrow might co-exist with one’s love, however far that sorrow or that love has had to travel.
‘The story of one is the story of us all’, chant the mushrooms. And as if to seal the uncanny bond that links them, these lines from the final page of Martin’s book could even serve as a summary of Solà’s: ‘There will be one single story, speaking with many voices, the one we are weaving together, they and I, about all that moves through us and that makes us what we are.’
(The text cited by Tim Ingold appears in the essay ‘From trust to domination: an alternative history of human-animal relations’, in Ingold’s book The Perception of the Environment, London: Routledge, 2000.)
In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin, translated from the French by Sophie R. Lewis, NY: New York Review of Books, 2021.
When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Solà, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, London: Granta, 2022.