Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 9, 2021

Mebet, by Alexander Grigorenko, translated by Christopher Culver

Mebet, by Russian author Alexander Grigorenko, is a parable that interrogates belief in a higher power, set in an exotic location. It takes place in the frozen landscapes of  Siberia, and its central character is a Nenet hunter of the taiga.  (Home to bears and reindeer, the taiga is the forested part of sub Arctic Russia; the tundra is what is often called the frozen wastelands because of the absence of water).

Written in two parts, this short work of fiction tells the story of Mebet, a man so favoured by luck, that he succeeds in everything he does.  Nicknamed ‘The Gods’ Favourite’ because he is impervious to harm or grief, Mebet saunters through life without a care in the world and any respect for the ancient laws and traditions of his clan.  It is not until death beckons that he learns that his luck was indeed due to the favouritism of The Mother, and that other gods are vying for control of his life and death.  (These gods are like Greek gods: capricious, jealous, selfish and utterly unconcerned about the welfare of the creatures they’ve created on Earth).  Part Two takes the form of Mebet’s quest to get back from the realms of the dead to his wife and surviving grandson. With his pride and arrogance chastened by a new understanding and concern for what will befall his family, he undergoes various trials representing the people he has wronged throughout his life.

The book is about Mebet, but although this is a mythic tale and should be read accordingly, many women, I think, will read it with disdain for the way of life depicted. There’s a lot of claptrap at Wikipedia which deplores the impact of Soviet collectivisation destroying the Nenets’ way of life.  Well, there is not much IMO about such traditional cultures worth preserving because they entrench male privilege and hypermasculinity.  Under the Soviets children got an education they’d never had access to before, and women had opportunities denied them in their traditional way of life.  Men suddenly had to do work which they considered beneath them because it was ‘women’s work’, and they felt so miffed about this that they took up heavy drinking as consolation, which meant that jobs offered by the Soviet government mostly went to women.  Reading this at Wikipedia reminded me of the very different take on Soviet collectivisation in Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C Hayden,  Based on the real life experience of the author’s grandmother in Siberia—Zuleikha was unequivocal about the way women had their lives transformed when collectivisation rescued them from lives where they’d had no agency of their own.

Brutality against women is certainly depicted in Mebet.  He kills with impunity in a number of situations, but the decapitation of the One-Eyed Witch is particularly gruesome. But it’s in everyday life that women come off very badly in the culture depicted. The usual method of acquiring a wife is, apparently, to steal one from another clan, and this is okay as long as a suitable bride-price is subsequently handed over.  Mebet’s son feels humiliated because his own attempt at abduction fails and his father has to do it for him, so he rapes his bride.  Getting beaten is part of daily life for women, which is otherwise filled with endless work and hardship.  And while they were probably glad to see the back of such husbands when they disappeared for long periods of time to hunt, this meant for Mebet’s wife that she gave birth alone.  Most of her children died in infancy.  And should her husband get mauled by a bear or die in some other way, then her only option was to hope that some family would take her in as unpaid labour, though her children would only ever be foster-children, with no hope of inheritance or prospects of a good marriage.

Although Part Two has dramatic moments and Mebet does come to realise that heartlessness has a price, there isn’t any indication that a loving and respectful relationship is in the offing for his wife Yadne.

Christopher Culver’s translation seems flawless.  This scene is from just before Mebet’s downfall:

The day was a marvellous one.  The sun shone on the snow.  No wind blew to trouble the world, to blur the clear and distinct shadows, dark-blue, of the trees, the man, his dog, and the defeated bear. Light came pouring down, just as joy flooded into Mebet’s heart.  A thought came to him, a particularly amusing one: to hold the bear feast right there.  For him alone.  There was no need to seek out his peers to arrange wrestling, archery competitions, reindeer races, jumping over sleds, or other silly entertainments.  After all, Mebet had never had true peers even before.  There was no need for esteemed and venerable elders with whom the victorious hunters, triumphantly and in full view of the others, would dine on the bear’s head, for Mebet himself was both hunter and elder.

Let there be, he thought, only three guests, three witnesses: the sun, the taiga and the shadows.  The Gods’ Favourite would perform for them his victory dance, and then he would haul the bear’s head away.  (p.91)

Mebet was interesting reading for its portrayal of a different way of life, but the existential aspects of Part Two seemed a little confused to me.

Author: Alexander Grigorenko
Title: Mebet (Мэбэт)
Cover design by Max Mendor
Translated from the Russian by Christopher Culver
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2020, first published 2013
ISBN: 9781912894901, pbk., 174 pages
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications.


Responses

  1. I thought Zuleikha was excellent and especially it being a woman’s voice, narrative and perspective, that’s what’s been missing from so many historical accounts, I’m kind of done with the other.

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    • I think the women’s voice is missing because women’s lives were transformed by the Soviets. They had access to education, an independent income, and career progression. During the Cold War, nobody wanted to acknowledge that there were *any* good things about the USSR, so nobody wanted to hear that women benefited from it.

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  2. This sounds like an important read. Although I can relate to the difficulty working through the violent scenes you’ve described. Somewhere in my reading recently, I came across the taiga as well…perhaps in a volume of poetry by Innu and Ilnu writers?

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    • I don’t think I’d ever come across it before. Glagoslav are always publishing books from places I know little about!

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