V.K. Arseniev’s travelogue Dersu the Trapper recounting his cartographic expeditions to Eastern Siberia is in print in English. I found a second-hand copy in April in Glastonbury and stupidly didn’t get it, on the lame excuse that I didn’t have much money – never a valid reason for not buying a book.

Kurosawa’s masterpiece (one of many) Dersu Uzala is based on this account, telling the story of how the trapper saved Arseniev’s life and then guided his team through the forests and mountains and how in the end he himself became trapped by the encroaching civilisation.

If memory serves, which frequently it does not, I believe Ursula Le Guin described the film as one of the best SF films ever made. I think she meant that it captured perfectly the meeting and sharing of different worlds with consequences positive and negative. She cited the scene where Dersu frantically builds a grass shelter over Arseniev as the sun sets and the temperature drops as better capturing ‘alienness’ than any of the special effects laden movies of the time.

I have only glanced through the book – it also has lovely sketches in it – but it’s on my infinite wish list. I think the style may seem dated and the attitude towards Dersu paternalistic and romanticised, but then it reflects the time and Arseniev’s views represent a vast improvement on the average ones shown towards Native Siberians.

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