POSTCARDS ARE frustrating things — how can anything significant be written in such a small space? Often, we resort to lists (“Arrived safely, sun shining, Martin in great form, went for long walk in the hills”), allowing them to snake around the address box until we are forced by the edge to end on a half-thought and smudged signature.
But the best postcards are like poems: reptilian in a different way, they shed their excess skin of details and dates, and dart in on a little narrative, a clear image that speaks of the writer’s experience.
Richard Wirick has it down to a fine art. An insurance lawyer from Los Angeles, he and his wife travelled to Siberia to adopt a baby girl. Having immersed himself in the landscape and culture, he returned with enough stories and still lifes to make 100 perfect postcards.
The publisher tells us to file this book under fiction but, fittingly for a land described as “outside of the geography”, this is writing outside genre. Some of the vignettes seem autobiographical or observational, some retell Siberian myth or history, some recycle passages from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, several feature a character called Goyen who seems to act as Wirick’s second self. Each contains a precious insight into an alien land.
Siberia, its name a conflation of the Mongolian siber, “beautiful” or “pure”, and the Tartar sibir, “sleeping land”, fills one twelfth of the Earth’s land mass. It is a place of extremity and uncertainty: Colin Thubron described its effect as “a bleak beauty, and an indelible fear”.
The fear is justified: in Wirick’s book, death is everywhere. The first chapter describes Goyen looking at a “great white and violet-turning mountain” where, several years earlier, a passenger plane had crashed when the pilot gave the controls to his son as a birthday treat before dozing off. It is based on a real event, and its simple finality makes you catch your breath: in this freezing, slumbering place, sleep slips easily into death. Elsewhere, in a story horribly reminiscent of Goldilocks, a peaceful family of Mongol villagers are killed in their kitchen by a pack of hungry bears. A few pages later, the scene is echoed as the exiled Romanov family are herded into a cellar for a photograph and then executed, bullets “bouncing off the children's pearl buttons”.
But the reason for Wirick’s journey — the baby girl — allows him to record the transformation and birth that bursts through the permafrost. He retells a folk tale in which — as in the magical battle between Merlyn and Mad Madam Mim in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone — a boy escapes the Devil through a series of dramatic metamorphoses. To survive in Siberia, he learns, is to change, to persist. If you do this, there is hope. “
There is a light ahead,” Wirick writes, “and ahead of the light you are free.” This light is refracted throughout the book; it is found in the “blazing white” of a wolf’s iris; in a night rainbow, “bending over the sawtooth distance of the Baikal range”.
Outside the orphanage, as the babies sleep, Wirick sees some flowers that he can’t identify, so he describes them instead: “All their blossoms are pink or coral, small buds of tongues thrust up at the dripping ice.” A quiet, crystalline image of hope and humanity, it captures the essence of this magical book, which moves, like the Siberian sky, “from starless black to an orange sun, to the final pink of the newborn’s hand”