The sounds I hear are enhanced. I hear like a wild animal, I am that wild animal. I wonder for a moment whether the bear will come back to finish me off, or to be killed by me, or indeed for us both to die in a final embrace. But I already know, I sense, that this will not happen: he is far away now, he is stumbling through the high steppe, blood dripping down his pelt. As he is farther away and I look deeper into myself, we each regain our self-possession.
The opening passages of French anthropologist, Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild are strangely surreal. She has just had a violent encounter with a bear on the Kamchatka Peninsula region of the Russian Far East, awaiting rescue. She is in a lucid state, numb, acutely aware. but her preternatural sense of connection with the animal who has wounded and disfigured her sets the tone for the account of physical and psycho/spiritual recovery that follows. Devoid of pathos, it is a tale of self-observation, ethnographic insight and the drive to understand what has happened—not from the angle of Western medical science, but from that of the Evens, the Indigenous people she had lived among and worked with in Siberia for four years.
Martin’s voice is most striking. Throughout her often quite horrific hospital ordeal, first in Russia and later in Paris, she does not hide her anger, frustration and physical agony. Her injuries are extensive, to her face and leg. Her jaw needs to be reconstructed—twice because the French doctors don’t trust the Russian work—and there are serious complications. Following a visit from the surgeon after a successful operation, she reflects on her body, her being, as an occupied territory under siege:
Recovering from this clash is not only an act of self-focused metamorphosis, it is a political act. My body has become a territory where Western surgeons parley with Siberian bears. Or rather, where they try to establish communication. The relationships being spun within the little country my body has become fragile, delicate. It’s a volcanic country, landslides can happen at any moment. Our work, hers and mine, and that of the indefinable thing the bear has left deep in my core, consists from now on of “maintaining the lines of communication.”
Existential questions drive the narrative—not why did I survive?—but a deeper examination into the intrinsic meaning of the experience. In this, dreams become essential to piecing together an understanding and acceptance of the relationship she has forged with the bear.
As soon as she is allowed, Martin retreats to the solitude of her mother’s home in Grenoble. Here she reads, speaks with her therapist on the phone, and tries to articulate the symbolism of what has occurred. She seeks precision in her choice of words—an attention that shines through in Sophie R. Lewis’ translation—but something deep has been destabilized that is not conforming to her intellectual instincts. She is not, as her therapist has advised, at peace. In truth she knows that she has not been inclined to seek to facilitate peace in her life or social interactions. “I have never known what to do with peacefulness or stability; serenity is not my strong suit,” she says. This self-evident prickliness, casts the narrative in a light not typically found in survival memoirs while her years spent among Indigenous communities, first Alaska and then Kamchatka, and her academic study of animism, have informed her encounter with the bear in a way another unfortunate hiker on a short excursion into the mountains would likely not. There is a notion of destiny and an element of suspension at the threshold of human and animal that cannot be explained by the park warden or naturalist. The anthropologist can only begin to heal by returning to the wild.
Her mother is decidedly unenthusiastic when she announces that she must go back to Russia. Barely recovered physically from her multiple surgeries, she is determined to leave. So, only a few months after the original incident, Nastassja Martin is again deep in the forests of Kamchatka, staying in a small cabin with Daria and her son Ivan who have become like family over the years, and other relatives that come by. It is the middle of winter; she joins in the necessary tasks and activities of the day, fetching water, setting traps, and gathering the wisdom and answers she needs to finally begin to process the journeys—internal and external—she and the bear have taken since their paths first crossed.
In the Eye of the Wild is an account that captures the way that the intellectual and the emotional can be at odds in the attempt to put meaning to a major trauma or loss. Martin is, by turns, angry, philosophical, and numb. The ethnographic has suddenly become profoundly personal and no amount of book knowledge can resolve it. The boundary has been blurred. This fuels her relentless determination to face down, if not the bear itself, the dreams he has bequeathed her. The result is an inspiring account that demonstrates an abiding respect for both the animal and the only people she knows can truly help her understand not what happened, but why.
In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin is translated by Sophie R. Lewis and published by New York Review of Books.