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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fishing for Themes in Russia's Wilds




"In Russia, just when you're sure you're about to sink, things have a way of quieting down," writes Fen Montaigne in the prologue to Hooked, his new book on fly-fishing and philosophy in the new Russia. Let's hope so.


Montaigne, a former correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, came to Russia in the summer of 1996, determined to travel across its vast stretches by land, fish in its most exotic and isolated waters, and unravel its mysteries. On the way he meets a variety of characters, ruminates on the meaning of life, gets cold, hungry, sick and disillusioned, and catches a very moderate number of fish.


He goes from the deserted islands of Solovki on the White Sea to the Russian Far East, with stops along the way to fish the Volga, Lake Baikal and assorted other lakes and rivers in Russia's more isolated rural areas.


The scenes from Solovki are among the best in the book, recounting the horrific history of this beautiful northern archipelago. In the early years of the Soviet regime, Solovki became the first stop for the unfortunates caught in the monstrous web of the Stalinist prison camp system.


Montaigne introduces the reader to his friend Yury Brodsky, who has devoted his life to a history of Solovki. Among peaceful scenes of rocky shores and twilight fishing, the author scatters haunting episodes from the islands' past.


"Hooked" makes entertaining, if occasionally frustrating, reading. Montaigne is a capable writer and a witty observer, and his bittersweet vignettes of the crumbling countryside are powerfully affecting.


But the repetition wears the reader down after awhile. Russia's far-flung villages are a morass of alcoholism and despair, and one cannot help but wish at times that Montaigne would stumble across an old-style intellectual, a noble soul, or have at least one uplifting experience. A travel book like this one needs the imagination of Nikolai Gogol, the style of Alexander Pushkin, or the perspective of Alexander Radishchev, to name just a few who have tackled the Russian travelogue.


Instead, what we have is a first-class journalist, who may have been better off writing a photo-rich spread for National Geographic or a 3,000-word piece for a Sunday magazine.


Montaigne is at his best when poking gentle fun at his own Western pretensions. There is one scene in particular that would reduce anyone familiar with Russia to tears of laughter:


"I put on my new $365 Simms Gore-Tex Breathable Guide waders and my new $90 L.L. Bean Aqua Sole wading boots. I slipped my $60 fly-fishing vest over my $85 Patagonia fleece shirt. I assembled my $465, three-piece, Sage Light Line, 5-weight trout rod, attached my $175 Lamson reel to it. ? Several Russians wandered by and looked at me with a mix of curiosity and alarm."


Russian fish were not impressed with Montaigne's high-tech gear, and while he stood uselessly on the bank looking like an illustration for Sporting Life, his Russian friend set to with a net, liberally fueled by a bottle of vodka. The Russian approach, needless to say, put dinner on the table, and Montaigne had the grace to write that he "felt like a fool."


The "hooked" of the title refers to Montaigne's fatal fascination with Russia, as much as to the sport of fly-fishing. Montaigne covered the late perestroika years, the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the hopeful beginnings of the new Russia.


Addiction to Russia is an ailment affecting many of us diehard expatriates. But in Montaigne's case one cannot help wondering exactly what it is that attracts him, other than a chance to see misery up close. He describes his first glimpse of Moscow, in 1989:


"There was no color, few cars, oppressive Stalinist architecture. The capital reminded me of a city at war. I loved it."


Montaigne seems to have a penchant for subjecting himself to unpleasant, uncomfortable experiences, beginning with his expensive hobby. As we travel with him from the White Sea to the Pacific, it emerges that he has a moral problem with killing fish.


He writes of one large salmon caught by a friend: "As blood trickled onto the sand, I felt a pang of sadness over the death of this magnificent creature, which had migrated thousands of miles ? had avoided the nets of trawlers in the North Atlantic ? had leapt through rapids f only to be hooked by a sport."


It is a heart-rending depiction, and one sympathizes with him. But as the episodes of fish-killing and remorse accumulate, the reader is left wondering why Montaigne doesn't simply give up the sport.


But perhaps this kind of fruitless self-abuse is typical of those who spend too much time in Russia.


Montaigne also seems to have a toilet fixation. Lovingly detailed verbal portraits of outhouses and various forms of filth dominate the book to a suspicious degree. Since the author came down with a parasitic intestinal ailment during his sojourn, one can perhaps understand his preoccupation, but one suspects there were more worthy objects of his attention than the lack of proper sanitation.


There is just a touch too much Western superiority about Montaigne's attitude. He is, above all, a journalist, a constant outsider and the Russians he depicts are mostly one-dimensional. With very few exceptions, he does not get under the skin of his subjects, but treats them more like lab specimens.


Montaigne also falls victim to tattered cliches about Russians, rarely digging under the surface. In an Irkutsk hotel restaurant he observes a "gaggle" of young waitresses huddled in a corner, ignoring their duties: "Even to many young Russians, service seemed an alien concept, to which they were almost genetically indisposed."


In his three-month slog through the dirt, alcohol and ignorance of Russia's backwaters, Montaigne seems, in a curious way, to be running in place; His themes do not develop and he himself seems no wiser at the end that at the beginning.


In his closing pages, he muses: "I had hoped that a trip across Russia would offer profound insight into a country that had long fascinated me, but, truth be told, there were no blinding revelations. ? I began to realize that understanding a place like Russia doesn't come in epiphanic bursts. It comes with a steady accretion of experiences and relationships ?"


Another good observation, but, for the reader, ultimately unsatisfying. In Montaigne's case, Russia kept her secrets to herself.


"Hooked" By Fen Montaigne. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 275 pages. pounds 20 ($33)