cover image When the Whales Leave

When the Whales Leave

Yuri Rytkheu, trans. from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse. Milkweed, $14 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-57131-131-3

In the lyrical, provocative latest from Rytkheu (1930–2008), after A Dream in Polar Fog, an Eve-like woman of the Arctic offers an unheeded ecological warning. Nau, the lone human living among the wildlife of the Eastern Siberian coast, forms a bond with a whale she names Reu. After Reu emerges from the sea as a fully formed man, they begin a romance. Their union produces both whale and human offspring, and the two species live harmoniously for generations. The novel’s tone darkens and matures as it shifts its focus from Nau to her descendants, who resent her mysterious longevity and question her teachings about their kinship with sea creatures as they struggle to survive. Enu and Kliau set off in a “big hide boat” to find warmer lands, while Armagirgin, a feared and cruel warrior, defies Nau by harpooning a seal. His prideful action brings about a major storm, signaling that the end is nigh for their Arctic Garden of Eden. Though the plot and characters can feel underdeveloped, Rytkheu’s folkloric prose and Chavasse’s enchanting translation succeed in reimagining indigenous and biblical tales. This worthy fable offers profound considerations about stewardship of and people’s relationship to the natural world. (Mar.)