A Novel History

“You’re a historian. Why write a novel?” a dear friend and early reader of Hyperadamantine wanted to know.

Why indeed?

Like many academics, in the course of looking for something else, I stumbled across the name Nikolai Bestuzhev a lot, as I researched culture and society in 19th– and 20th-century Buryatia for a dissertation.

Just to be clear: Buryatia is a political entity, a subdivision of the Russian Federation called a republic. This was a designation created by the Soviets to guarantee (at least in theory) a certain amount of ethnic autonomy. The Buryat region of Russia embraces Lake Baikal, from the deep forests and mountains to the steppes of northern Mongolia. The Buryats speak a set of Mongolic languages, some very close to Mongol, some less so.

The 19th-century sources for the history of Buryat literary, musical, and artistic expressions are limited. Buryats have a long literary history, but the subjects that concerned them were very particular: genealogy, religious teachings, and chronicles. All valuable resources for peering into the lives and works of folks living around Lake Baikal, but often focused on very specific topics and issues.

Nikolai Bestuzhev, an aristocratic exile to the Buryat area, was one of the few early Russian commentators who took an interest in Buryat affairs, writing about the rituals and celebrations he observed, recording folk songs, and painting the occasional portrait or scene to capture his Buryat neighbors in watercolors.

He was often a footnote, something I brushed over, though many of his letters and writings had been published in Russia, starting in the early 20th century. He was a popular source to cite, because he had more than a few positive things to say about Buryats, a rare thing for a Siberian indigenous group.

It wasn’t until I had long completed the PhD, until I had a second child, when I finally wandered into the university library and checked out his letters. They were stunning: Detailed descriptions of his everyday experiences. I then turned to his younger brother and fellow exile Mikhail’s writings. His letters were even more passionate, more descriptive, emotional. Reading them made you fall in love.

Except the man was dead.

The letters, read with other sources, suggest all sorts of tales, and yet avoid talk of many key life events, things rumored or remembered by old timers, who spilled the beans in the 1920s to historians gathering oral accounts in the town where the Bestuzhevs lived in exile. Speculation of that sort, the daydreams of the heart, make for poor academic history. They do, however, make for great stories.

The deeper I dived, the more fascinated I became with the entire tenor and spirit of the era, one with much to say to our own. The documents—letters, diaries, short fiction, scientific papers, travel accounts—often speak vividly of intimate, lived experience, and how it entwined closely with the larger issues of the time confronting the writers.

And I had fallen in love with these people, with all their obvious quirks and limitations. It was impossible to set aside the yearning to engage with their emotional world. It resonated with my own, with long journeys to and in Siberia. With the sights, sounds, people, and feelings I confronted as I gained some slight knowledge over many years.

I had never been able to render those elements of my own being well. Until I tried to tell the tale of a few political exiles, stuck in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the world they had known.

Hyperadamantine is the first part in a two-part historical fantasy The Tomb and the Stone, chronicling the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb, set in early 19th-century Russia and Siberia, in the time of the Decembrists. Follow the link above to buy, or search for it on your favorite book-buying site.

Part II: Jada will be out in late 2017, in print and electronic forms.