In the Eye of the Wild
By Nastassja Martin
112 pp. New York Review Books. $15.
A French anthropologist survives a horrific bear attack in Kamchatka and, after undergoing brutal reconstructive surgeries in Russia and France, realizes she’s developed a profound attachment to the bear and that she must return.
That’s the tidy, one-sentence summary for you, but a female version of “The Revenant” this is not. For one thing, this story is all true.
This is a beautifully written book, and despite the clear animist theme running through it, which could have left me otherwise feeling slightly unmoored, I found myself utterly compelled by it. I finished it one evening and barely exhaled the entire time I was reading.
It isn’t the account of the bear attack, told in several flashbacks, that I found so disturbing, but rather Nastassja (Nastya) Martin’s treatment at the hand of the physicians she’s entrusted to after all that.
Martin is in Kamchatka — a peninsula in Russia’s Far East that’s the home of secret Russian military bases, indigenous peoples, and little else — doing research on the Even people and imbibing their hearty standard fare of Reindeer meat and animist beliefs. Martin is airlifted from the site of her nearly fatal attack and taken to a Russian military base where a kind babushka spends the entire night sewing pieces of her face back together. From there she’s taken to another site where a Russian surgeon and his gaggle of youthful, acquiescent nurses install a Soviet plate in her head to replace the chunk of jaw that the bear took with him.
Martin is then flown to her native France, where she’s told she needs an operation to replace the metal plate the Soviets installed.
“So it is,” she writes, “that, calmly, remorselessly, my jaw is made the scene of a Franco-Russian medical cold war.”
When the yellow fluid oozing out of her jawbone shows no sign of abating, tests are run that show Martin has conducted a hospital-borne infection, a bacteria-resistant “strain of streptococcus, known to frequent the Parisian operating table, has made itself at home on the new plate that was meant to save me from the poor quality of its Russian rival.”
Martin is told she’ll need to go under the knife again, lest the bacteria colonize what’s left of her jawbone, at which point you just want to exclaim, good grief! It would have been a mercy if that bear had just finished her off!
Amidst all these medical nightmares, Martin is haunted by dreams of the bear, a bear that has become so closely tied with her it feels like a part of her. Martin is medka now, she’s told, which is an Even word used to describe those who have been “marked by the bear” but lived to tell the tale. From this point on, these people are believed to be half human, half bear.
Martin is deeply unamused by the attempt of those around her to take her encounter with the bear and read some meaning into it, which the indigenous people are quick to do as well.
“Bears cannot stand to look into the eyes of a human, because they see the reflection of their own soul there,” Vasya, an Even man, explains to her. “A bear that meets a human’s gaze always has to obliterate what he sees there. That’s why he’ll always attack, if he sees your eyes. You looked him in the eyes, didn’t you?”
Her dreams of the bear, her irresistible urge to return to Kamchatka, are easily explained too. Because Martin is medka now, she carries some element of the bear inside her and she will be “hunted” by the bear for the rest of her life.
“Hunted in dreams, or hunted for real? I ask.” “Both.”
You’ll find yourself haunted by this story, reflecting back on it often to try and read your own meaning into it. It’s one of the more fascinating books I’ve read all year.