Book Review: Great Soul of Siberia
by Sooyong Park
Greystone Books, 2015
As readers will be able to tell by the fact that the nervous marketing people of Greystone Books have decided to cram the whole of the cover-jacket copy into the book’s subtitle, Korean filmmaker Sooyong Park’s book Great Soul of Siberia is about his own experiences tracking and observing one family group among the tiny population of the world’s remaining Siberian Tigers, a species he sadly but correctly describes as on an “irreversible path to extinction.” Park spent months in Russia’s remote Ussuri forest, documenting the lives and deaths of a huge male tiger he named Khajain, his mate Bloody Mary, and their offspring, White Moon, White Snow, and White Sky, and he turned the experience into a critically-acclaimed documentary called The Death of Three Generations of Siberian Tigers (Siberia horangi 3dae ui jugeum). Great Soul of Siberia is the book of that experience.
It’s a beautiful book and also a crushingly sad one, as any well-written obituary will be. In the course of his travels and studies, Park has become one of the world’s foremost experts on Siberian tigers in the wild, and he’s also a wonderfully evocative prose stylist. As a result, his book effortlessly teaches its readers while at the same time fascinating them. Even people who know quite a bit about these magnificent animals will find themselves learning things in these pages, such as why tigers (including the zoo-reared and zoo-living imitations that are all most people ever see) make that elaborately horrifying facial expression they sometimes use when they seem to be relaxing. It turns out, according to Park (and who in his right mind could invent a detail so bizarre?), the great beasts are using their mouths to savor the air of their surroundings:
Tigers pick up scents through their gums as well as their noses. Just as the whiskers of a tiger help it to balance and maintain a good sense of direction, its gums are an important sensory organ that pick up scent and taste. Tigers primarily use their noses to smell things when they’re engaged in everyday activities such as hunting or avoiding unwelcome guests. But when they feel they’re at an especially cozy place or when a male tiger picks up the scent of a female, they take in the scent and the taste by using their noses and their gums.
The story Park tells is full of other animals as well, the crows and raccoons and dear and bear who likewise inhabit the Ussuri range, but it’s clear that the tiger exercises by far the greatest fascination for the author, who was born in 1964 and thus has never lived in a world in which wild tiger numbers weren’t falling precipitously. The chances any ordinary citizen will ever encounter a Siberian tiger in the wild are essentially nonexistent – unless they make the effort to do as our author did and hike out into the gorgeous, forbidding landscapes the animals call home. And if you are willing to do that, you stand a small chance of a face-to-face encounter. Park has a few, and his descriptions of them – still awe-inflected months and sometimes years later – very accurately reflect the time-stopping nature of meeting a cat as big as a bear with nothing between you but the good will or indifference of the apex predator you realize only belatedly has been observing you for some time. Park’s descriptions of these rare encounters never fail to thrill:
At a stretch of the river that flowed past a nut pine grove, we took off our backpacks and sat on a flat rock by the path to take a break. We had a simple meal of bread and sausage and drank from the brook. Stefanovich lay down on the rock and started to snore. I sat, all strength drained from my limbs, and stared straight ahead. The forest was full of large nut pines, and the delicious smell of pine nuts wafted toward me. Suddenly, a face emerged from a nut pine five to six meters in front of me. I stared blankly as the contours of a face became clear. Its eyes were so deep, they looked like they were burning from the inside. It was a tiger.
Anyone who has ever found themselves looking into the eyes of a wild tiger (the description applies every bit as tightly to the subcontinent’s variety) will nod immediately at that mention of eyes that look like they’re burning from the inside. Park is plainly fascinated with the sight. “His eyes were at once aloof and piercing, and they were focused only on me,” he writes. “The look in his eyes wasn’t one of someone who is caught, but someone who has come to see.”
Park writes his magnificent elegy in full knowledge of the fact that both he and all of his readers will soon live in a world that has no wild Siberian tigers. Back when he was writing his book, their numbers had fallen to around 350, and now, in late 2015, the population is half that – below the practical threshold at which they could repopulate even if deforestation and poaching ended tonight. A few isolated individuals and families will probably struggle on into the 2020s, but the days when another expedition even remotely like Park’s could be mounted will by then be long over. They’re very likely over now. Park’s filmmaking successors will have other obituaries to create.