The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin

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The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A twelve-year-old newcomer to the shores of Lake Baikal explores the notorious Dead Man's Crag and there discovers the secret of the mountain that looks like a ruined castle. A magical tale of hurt and love laced with the remote wonder of Siberia.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 190 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Quartet
ISBN: 9780704373242

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From a space of 25 years, our narrator looks back on what happened when he was 12 years old. Twenty five years that had to elapse, because that was the promise that he made. He is now happy, happy to have kept the secret as he promised Sarma he would, and happier that he can now tell the story: he can tell us of everything that happened in his childhood that year on the shores of the oldest lake in the world, Lake Baikal.

It's taken him a while to get started, we must understand, because only when he came to write it did it occur to him that maybe he wouldn't be believed; that maybe some people might look upon what happened as a fairy story. Not so, we are assured. Every word is true.

Our child came to be in the village on the shores of Baikal, because his parents had been sent there to teach in the railway school. They arrive at the beginning of the summer holiday, so to begin with there is no school to worry about, merely the settling into a new landscape and making new friends, and learning a whole new way of life.

He makes friends easily and with all the curiosity and guilelessness of the young, he learns from them, hiding his ignorance only so far. He is a city boy after all. He can't be expected to know about the winds and currents of the great lake. He helps with the cows, learns to fish and make rafts and help with the cows. He even makes friends with the local 'witch'.

He's no pushover though. There is the obligatory fisticuffs and bloody nose to cement one early friendship.

His great fascination though is with the place itself, the beauty and severity of it. Borodin captures the remoteness with a feeling of time and place that is magical. But for our storyteller, there is one place in particular: Dead Man's Crag. There were no trees on it except for one on its very peak near the sky – a pine tree with four branches in all...the crag itself looked like a ruined castle. He is quickly warned never to climb it; it is a slippery place of falling rocks. No-one goes there.

Except of course, we know he will... and there high on the mountain top he will meet the old woman Sarma and learn of her secret.

The secret is tied up in the myths of the origins of Siberia and of Lake Baikal itself, but at its heart is the very human story of love, and harm, of distrust, betrayal and the eternal suffering caused by an inability to forgive.

The kernel around which the story is formed is the idea that suffering cannot be assuaged, merely transferred. It is therefore weak to take the suffering upon oneself rather than exacting vengeance upon those who caused it thus transferring it back where it belongs. This is Sarma's view, and whilst our storyteller instinctively feels otherwise, he too struggles to understand the notion of forgiveness. How do we forgive? Does forgiving wipe away the stain of the crime, because, after all, it doesn't fix what has been broken?

In this there are echoes of a Christian writer perhaps struggling with the mores and direction of his country, but it is no way an overtly political or religious parable. It is, in essence, precisely what we are told it is not: a fairy story, a variant on the princess in the tower, complete with the wicked witch and ineffective Prince (Baron/King). There is magic in the mountains.

More than that it reads like a lament for a way of life which may not exist anymore. A freer existence of fishing in the lake, herding the few cows, and trusting the local herbalist when things go awry. A time when the stories of the mythical people resonated strongly with the mundane stories of the people back down in the valley.

It is certainly an elegy for the Siberian heartland, that will leave you wondering precisely where Irkutsk is and whether that train is still running.

It's the kind of book that will only appeal to a certain kind of reader, but those who come into that category will adore it. Anyone entranced by Tove Jansson's Summer and Winter books, will love this.

A note on the title: I'm not sure how or why Quartet hit on this particular rendition of the title of the work. All other references to it that I've found render the Russian original as A Year of Wonder and Sorrow. Unfortunately, I don't have the Russian to know whether subtleties have been regained or imposed via the Quartet choice. It feels right though.

Whenever I discover a 'new' author, I want them to be a NEW author, I want the thrill of being in at the beginning, of following their career and collecting the works as they come out. I don't manage it very often.

With Borodin I was doomed. He is no longer with us. Born in Irkutsk in 1938, Borodin was a Christian and a Soviet dissident belonging to the anti-Communist All-Russian Social-Christian Union. He was – by his own admission 'deservedly' – arrested and imprisoned in 1967. It was in the camps that he started to write. After his release in 1973, Borodin’s works were smuggled out of the Soviet Union and it was the publication in English translation of The Story of a Strange Time that led to his re-arrest in 1982 on charges of 'anti-Soviet propaganda'. He was sentenced to 10 years' hard labour to be followed by five years' internal exile.

Fortunately perestroika intervened and he was not only released after four years but given leave to travel to the west with his wife. Better still, his work started to be published in Russia. In short order he won a number of literary prizes including, in 2002, the one he himself most esteemed: the Solzhenitsyn Prize. You can read an interview which he gave just after winning the prize here. He became editor in chief of popular literary magazine Moskva, and in 2005 was appointed to the first convocation of the Public Chamber of Russia, a kind of oversight committee for the actions of Parliament, government and government departments. I'm sure it sounded like a good idea at the time, but doubt it has achieved anything meaningful. Borodin, I'm sure, will be happy enough to be remembered for the body of print he left behind.

For more stories from the northern corners we can recommend The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson or Far North by Marcel Theroux.

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Booklists.jpg The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2013.


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