Twenty years ago or more, I saw Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film Dersu Uzala. Filmed on an epic scale, it’s the story of V.K. Arseniev, a Russian captain in charge of surveying the extreme eastern territory of Siberia, and Dersu Uzala, a native Goldi who is at one with the taigá, the Siberian forest. He reads the tracks of animals and man and predicts the weather. Through death-defying adventures with tigers, frozen lakes, and more, Dersu and Arseniev become great friends, even when Arseniev’s expeditions are separated by several years. Dersu saves Arseniev’s life more than once, and Arseniev takes him back to his home in the town of Khabarovsk to live when Dersu grows to old to hunt for himself.
I’ve seen the movie a few times over the years, but it wasn’t until I was reading Ian Frazier’s Travels to Siberia that I realized Dersu and Arseniev were real people. Frazier is a writer for the New Yorker who crossed the 5800 miles of Russia a couple times in a van, writing about Russian people, history, and culture in his trademark manner of wry and insightful observation. As he approached the Pacific coast, I wondered if the subject would turn to the movie, but Frazier mentions carrying Arseniev’s book, and his intention to locate Arseniev’s house in Khabarovsk! It turns out that the story of Dersu and Arseniev are quite well known throughout Russia, though the expeditions took place 1902-1907. (Kurosawa’s movie was a Russian production, using a Tuvan actor in the part of Dersu.)
Then, quite recently, I went through another great book: John Vaillant’s The Tiger (which I just wrote about). Vaillant discusses Dersu and Arseniev in great detail, and notes that a small town in the area is named after the explorer. He especially describes how much of Dersu’s (and other natives’) behavior around tigers is still modeled by the people who live in and around the taigá. The native people call the tiger Amba, a word that also means “devil,” but carries much more respect and honor — even when your life is threatened:
“Why you go behind. Amba? What you want, Amba? We go our way, you go yours; you no bother us. Why you keep come behind? Taigá big place, room for us and you, what?
That is from the book I just finished, Dersu the Trapper, the English translation of Arseniev’s classic. In that scene Dersu and Arseniev are, as always, walking through the forest when Dersu realizes a tiger is watching them. He sees a tiger track in the path behind them, and, distinct from the other puddles on the ground, it has no water in it — very fresh! Dersu yells at Amba and apologizes and after a few minutes the beast is heard from no more and the men continue their journey.
Dersu the Trapper is a great story that ought to be more widely known. It’s a scientific journey, not unlike Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, in which Arseniev gives careful and attentive descriptions and bird, plants, trees, animals, and the customs of peoples he encounters, like the native Nanai and Udehé, the Old Believers and the Koreans, and the ever-encroaching Chinese. He also decries the coming exploitation of the region that he can see is not many years in the future. But all this is mixed with a thrilling adventure narrative starring a clever, resourceful, and memorable type of man who has now all but disappeared from the earth. Facing bandits and bears, starvation and injury, severe weather and impassable obstacles, Dersu achieves his goals without losing the honorable connection he has with his beloved taigá.
Bonus: here is a fascinating and thorough Polish website devoted to all thing Dersu Uzala. Book covers, posters, museum exhibits, Arseniev’s map, and more — it even details the existence of an asteroid named after Dersu and includes an essay that compares him to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha!