With her second book, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin seeks to tell us what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. In August 2015, when living among the Even people of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, she – the immovable object: a headstrong, combative woman – met the unstoppable force of a large brown bear.
Her story to begin with is simple, and beautifully gruesome. She writes of “the bear’s kiss on my face, his teeth closing over me, my jaw cracking, my skull cracking” – but, impaled by a well-placed ice axe, he changes his mind, departs, and leaves her with “features subsumed beneath the open gulfs in my face, slicked over with internal tissue”. And so this short but chewy book thickens up into a stew of memoir, drama, anthropology and metaphysics – or how the immovable object moved, and changed.
This change is in some sense literal: not just the physical legacy of the bear attack following Martin’s miraculous survival, but her sense that she is what the locals call medka, that is, “marked by the bear” in such a way that she is half-human, half-bear. But the more we read, the more we can see that Martin always had something wild in her spirit.
She is lifted to hospital; the scenes that follow are sometimes funny – the Russian authorities want to know if she is “a highly trained secret agent sent by France (or, worse, by the US)” – and sometimes horrifying: a replacement jaw plate leads to an antibiotic-resistant infection. She is not a model patient: not yet fully recovered, she returns to Kamchatka, to the source of her suffering. She quotes Pascal Quignard: “Freeing ourselves not of the existence of the past but from its ties: this is the strange, sorry task to be performed.”
This time, she is there less to study others than to learn about herself, and what comes across repeatedly is Martin’s contrariness, her refusal to fit: “I’ve never sought to bring peace to my life, far less to my encounters with others.” In returning to the peninsula – where her medka status sees her shunned by some – she wants to “stop thinking”, but that is not her way. And so we get a fascinating, ambitious exploration of animism – the border between human and animal – and how she sees her encounter with the bear as a manifestation of a breakdown. “I am inside out.”
The book represents both a collapse and a rebuilding. The language, in Sophie R Lewis’s elegant translation, is often seductive (“The water is rising the piers are flooded we must raise the anchor batten the hatches; we have everything we need to face the ocean; farewell we’re going to sea”), though sometimes strains for epigrammatic effect: “Life pushes us out of the belly, but bears go back underground to dream.” Martin, however, doesn’t seek sympathy from the reader; she simply wants us to share in her attempts to understand what has happened to her. What more could we ask for from a book?