#RivetingReviews: Ewa Sherman reviews THE MAN WHO LOVED SIBERIA by Roy Jacobsen and Anneliese Pitz

How often do you see these two words together: Love and Siberia? This vast region in Asia, rich in fauna and flora, with its magnificent taiga and tundra (but also its terrible history) is not immediately obvious as a place of passion. I recently read Antti Tuomainen’s darkly funny novel Little Siberia but it was about Russians rather than natural species. The Man Who Loved Siberia something quite different: a unique cross between biography, scientist’s diary and travelogue for the toughest – a book of rare beauty. It follows a specific period in the life of the German natural scientist and researcher Fritz Dörries (1852 -1953) who at the age of 25 began travelling across eastern Siberia in search of butterflies, the start of his fascination with this unexplored and somewhat mysterious part of the world in the 19th century. It was no everyday experience, conquering the ‘Wild East’; over some twenty-two years he undertook arduous journeys alone or with his brothers into the one of the world’s most inhospitable regions search for his butterflies. 

Dörries not only had to face the extremes of the Siberian climate:  just getting there was enormously time-consuming.  His first journey took him vast distances by ship, then across Japan on foot before he found himself in a new world, unbearably cold and harsh, but also incredibly magnificent with unspoilt nature and undiscovered species. Apart from food and weapons, he only had pen and paper, some essential tools and huge capacity for survival. But he had patience and took everything in his stride … from exquisite light, strange smells, violent gangs of robbers, snow, shamans, Lake Baikal, extreme working conditions in a coalmine on Sakhalin. Always, he was focused on collecting plants and butterflies, on hunting wild animals such as tigers, bears and deer, on living with indigenous people and obeying laws that he neither supported nor fought against but just accepted. He was the intrepid guest in an empire of different nations and grateful for that. His collections containing a magnitude of samples were sent from the distant lands of Siberia back to the scientific institutions and museums of Europe. His scientific legacy is truly impressive. 

The authors of The Man Who Loved Siberia have also embarked on an adventure when they dug deep into the old texts and followed the Siberian trail. Roy Jacobsen, one of Norway’s most widely read authors and recipient of many international prizes, has created something very different from his usual, well-known prose. Together with his Belgian-born linguist wife Anneliese Pitz, he trawled through 190 pages of recollections and notes by Dörries. They were translated by Pitz and proved to contain a wealth of information, combined with an open mind always ready to take on the new and unexpected. The book Jacobsen and Pitz have produced, with its narrative style of a memoir punctuated by detailed sharp observations, reads like a novel, in superb translation by Seán Kinsella.

Norwegian readers of the book, first published in 2019, compared the German entomologist to two other famous explorers: the contemporary Norwegian adventurer and journalist Lars Monsen and the 18th century Swedish biologist and physician Carl Linnaeus, who formalised the modern system of naming organisms. I dare say these three men would have enjoyed experiencing the wilderness together! 

Reviewed by Ewa Sherman

THE MAN WHO LOVED SIBERIA

by Roy Jacobsen and Anneliese Pitz

Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella

Published by MacLehose Press (2023)

December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Ewa Sherman is a writer, translator and critic. She studied Polish Literature and Language, and Law, and worked with the Polish media. She’s translated several books of sonnets written by her mother Krystyna Konecka from Polish to English.

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