Anthropologist meets a bear – but it’s not your usual bear story

In the eye of nature

By Nastasja Martin. New York Review Books, 2021. Translated from the French by Sophie R. Lewis. 112 pages. $14.95

When someone is injured by a bear in Alaska, we generally understand it as an accident – the result of the person being in the wrong place at the wrong time, startling an animal that was not expecting a close encounter or which could have protected bear cubs or a cache of food. Nastassja Martin offers another interpretation: “That day, August 25, 2015, the event is not: a bear attacks a French anthropologist somewhere in the mountains of Kamchatka. The event is as follows: a bear and a woman meet and the borders between two worlds implode.

The then 29-year-old author lived with indigenous Even peoples in a remote region of Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula and studied their belief system, including animism – that is, the belief that all things, living and non-living, have spirits and free will. When descending a mountain, she comes face to face with a bear who nearly kills her and her life changes unexpectedly. Influenced by the Even people and the Gwich’in with whom she had worked in Alaska, and by dreams, she accepted that she would become “medka”, marked by the bear, half-human half-bear.

Martin’s narrative is both poetic and philosophical, though it is often equally impressionistic and oblique as she broadcasts her thoughts across time and space. Clarity (perhaps partly the result of the translation from the French) seems to suffer even as Martin’s experience and interpretations raise questions that certainly deserve our attention.

The book begins with a disturbing image of the aftermath of the mutilation, as the traumatized woman waits for the mist to lift and a Russian helicopter to reach her. “As in the time of myths, darkness reigns; I am that blurred figure, the features subsumed under the open gulfs of my face, covered with internal tissues, fluids and blood; it is a birth because it is clearly not a death.

We soon learn that the bear has bitten its head, face and leg. His jaw and cheekbone are fractured, and he is missing part of his jaw and some teeth. She was first airlifted to a clinic and then to a hospital in Petropavlovsk for multiple surgeries. Back in France, the operations had to be redone because the doctors did not like the size or location of an inserted metal plate. (“My jaw has become the scene of a Franco-Russian medical cold war.”) Later, a nosocomial infection requires more surgery.

Starting in the fall of the “encounter” (his word) between the woman and the bear, the story continues through winter, spring, and summer as Martin recovers from his injuries and tries to figure out how his life has changed. She seems less concerned with disfigurement or lingering pain than with dreams, some level of depression, and what had already been her life’s search. Even before being cured, she dismisses her family’s worries and returns to Kamchatka, to resume her life in a forest cabin with a family of hunters. She is particularly attached to an older woman who tells her about dreams and advises her on life. (“Your dreams are the bear’s dreams as well as yours. You must not leave us anymore. You must stay here, because we need you.”)

We then learn that Martin’s anthropological interest dates back to a childhood wanting to escape the world she was born into, an escape that took her first to Alaska and then to Russia. “We have to get out of the madness that our civilization is creating…we have to find something else.” That something else, she thought, lay in the wisdom and the life of the Native people. However, on her return to Kamchatka, she feels that she is “coming to an end”, “sinking”. Something inside her ‘sounds’ the alarm as ‘even the mountains crumble’. Exactly what is happening remains a mystery, but it seems clear that she feels the separation between her physical being and the larger world – that of mountains, forests and animals – has shrunk or even disappeared, and she is scared.

When she thinks back to her time with the Gwich’in at Fort Yukon, she says an elder told her that everything was “recorded” and the forest was “informed”. She understood, in her own academic way, that “every thoughtform we send out will join and mingle with the old stories that shape the world around us, and the conditions of those who inhabit it.” After becoming a “medka”, it is no longer academic but a lived experience, something she knows in her body. We act on the world, and the world acts on us.

In the last part of the book, the author is back in France with his various notebooks. Previously, she had kept two sets – one for her anthropology notes and the other personal, recording things like dreams. From now on, they will no longer be separated. “There will be a single story, speaking in many voices, the one we weave together, them and me, of everything that goes through us and that makes us who we are.” She begins to write – presumably the book that becomes the tempting “In the Eye of the Wild”.

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