In The Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin
Spoiler Alert! - This review discusses the ending of the book, albeit obliquely, so you may prefer to avoid reading the review until after reading the book.
What is it like to be a bear? On Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild:
The romance of the anthropologist has, I suspect, largely fallen out of favor, being as it is a way of telling stories of exotic people in far off places; an account of “discovering” and reveling in “Otherness." Yet, there is something mesmerizing about the idea of being plunged into a world that is utterly different and slowly figuring out its mores, and a thrill, too, (a dangerous one perhaps?) in observing yourself gradually become changed. If it is no longer acceptable, however, to tell such stories about other cultures (unless in science fiction), it seems that another possibility remains open — to narrate an encounter with an animal. Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis, is a curious hybrid of the two forms, a compromise of sorts. Narrating the story of her rencontre with a bear and its aftermath, Martin, an anthropologist, also describes the nightmare world of hospitals and extensive surgeries, and her experiences among the Evens people in Kamchatka. As she moves through these various spaces and kinds of interaction, she grapples with the question of what is alien and what is familiar, seeking a place where she can belong without remainder.
Animals have long, maybe always, been, in addition to companions or food or tools of labor or food, a source of mystery and fascination. The increasing popularity of vegetarianism and the rise of Animal Studies, the popularity of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, all attest in different ways to a larger cultural meditation on the nature of the human-animal dichotomy. What do we really know about what it is like to be an animal? How do we ethically co-exist with them, what agency do they have, what are our duties towards them?
As it happened, I read Martin’s book (in one cozy sitting — it is well suited for curling up in front of a fire with) a few days before I was teaching an essay by Val Plumwood entitled “Being Prey,” which describes the experience of a crocodile attack. The pairing was apt: both writers narrate a (harrowing) encounter with a predatory creature, but seek to do so in a different kind of way, to call into question the standard assumptions and beliefs that underpin such tales. Plumwood writes of her struggle to resist the cultural pressure to describe what happened to her through the trope of the mythic struggle, or “masculinist monster myth.” Rather, she seeks to understand herself as prey, as part of the food chain. Her story, she says, “is a humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability.”
Martin, too, gains a new sense of animality from her experiences, but one that is hers alone, rather than a shared property of all humans. She is now medka, an Even word for people who have been marked by the bear, who are half human, half bear. Already before, her Even title, matukha, she-bear, marked an affinity with the creature, but now she is changed. Maybe: she has met what was always awaiting her. Where Plumwood’s essay arrives at a new understanding of her place in a larger cycle of life, a feeling of belonging in the world, Martin’s, instead, is characterized by a profound sense of isolation from other people.
For indeed, the meeting, the animal’s grip on her face, her jaw in the bear’s own, is one of an intense intimacy, whereas her encounters with various medical professionals, first in Russia and then in France, are horrifically alien. She is tormented by doctors and nurses, subjected to various treatments that cause atrocious pain and seem never-ending, as complications arise and she is told that another surgery will be needed. She can trust, it seems, no one, particularly after her return to France, when she is all too aware of how she has become a mere pawn in complex rivalries between France and Russia, or different French hospitals. She is visited by a therapist whose counsel is based in cultural notions of identity that Martin has spent years critiquing, who seeks to help produce a particular kind of story of healing that is utterly unsuited to Martin’s narrative needs. Strangers, and even friends and family, look upon her altered face with pity. She feels, keenly, that she does not belong, and plots her return to Kamchatka.
But there, with the Even people whose understanding of her connection to animality seems so central to her efforts to make sense of events, too, she does not belong. An intriguing feature of both Plumwood’s essay and Martin’s book is that although the encounter with the animal takes center stage, at the margins there is also the insistent presence of another form of difference, another culture with an other concept of human-animal relationships. Plumwood’s awareness of the need for humility in relation to the natural world is partly inspired by Aboriginal thinking, but while the essay thoughtfully explores human-animal power dynamics, it remains relatively reticent on the topic of Indigenous-settler relations. Yet the traces of Indigenous people are all over the text: Plumwood sets out to see Aboriginal rock art; notes that she has not consulted with the Indigenous Gagadu owners of the land about her trip. The understanding she comes to by the end is heavily indebted to Indigenous beliefs, but is presented as her own. Similarly, Martin’s relationship to the Even people is central to her story, and her recounting of her experiences. The question of potential consequences that the publication of this text will have for them is not discussed. Ultimately, Martin’s allegiance is to her writing, to anthropology; this is where she belongs, what she does.
I say this, not to accuse either writer of cultural appropriation or exploitation (though I’m admittedly not not doing that either), but to ponder the question I began with — the romance of the anthropologist, the story of an encounter with otherness, and the residue of other kinds of encounter, other questions of power. “I go close, I am gripped, I move away again or I escape. I come back, I grasp, I translate. What comes from others, goes through my body, and then goes who knows where,” writes Martin. This is the experience of transformation, the work of writing. The endlessly tantalizing possibility of something truly different, truly other, that we could learn to know.