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Tent Life in Siberia by George Kennan (Peregrine Smith/Gibbs N. Smith: $14.95, paperback; 425 pp.)

September 21, 1986| Sharon Dirlam | Dirlam is a Times staff writer.

S hortly after the Civil War, in the late 1860s, a small band of adventurous Americans set out for Siberia to determine whether a telegraph line could be laid northward through Alaska, across the Bering Strait, cross-country through the barren wilds of Siberia and on to the Chinese frontier of Asia, ultimately connecting North America and Europe.

To the end, these few idealists thought it could be done, and they set about making it happen through three years of their lives, $3 million of Western Union's funding, and even through construction of 50 miles of roads and the chopping down of 15,000 trees to use as telephone poles.

Failure did not mark the end of their mission. The successful completion of the telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean did.

"It seemed hard to give up at once the object to which we had devoted three years of our lives, and for whose attainment we had suffered all possible hardships of cold, exile and starvation; but we had no alternative, and began at once to make preparations for our final departure," Kennan summarizes. "We might build the line, but no company in the world would undertake to sustain it in competition with the (transatlantic) cable."

Nevertheless, Kennan's account of his experiences in the remotest outposts of northeastern Siberia provide fascinating and literally chilling contemplation for comfortable 20th-Century readers. He is perceptive, curious, enthusiastic, stoic and lighthearted.

His party faced the most primitive conditions imaginable and the most intense cold that occurs on the face of the Earth.

They availed themselves of the hospitality of wandering tribes; they slept in smoky huts, yurts of animal hides and holes they hollowed in the snow. Some of their more civilized accommodations boasted windows of opaque fish skin.

Throughout, Kennan kept alive his eager interest in all that he observed.

"I was surprised to see how accurately our drivers could determine the points of the compass and shape their course by simply looking at the snow," he writes. "The heavy northeast winds which prevail here sweep the snow into long wavelike ridges which run in a direction perpendicular to the wind. They are sometimes hidden by freshly fallen snow, but an experienced Korak (a Siberian nomad) can always tell by removing the upper layer which way is north."

In his introduction, best-selling author Larry McMurtry has high praise for Kennan: "The greatest passage in the book is the description of an extraordinary display of the aurora borealis in February, 1867. In the copious annals of Arctic travel, there is nothing to surpass Kennan's description of this display."

Kennan's account brings to life this "great revolving kaleidoscope of shattered rainbows" and makes it seem that this brilliant spectacle alone may have been worth all the hardships he endured.

Yet to his credit, he didn't report his travails as a chronicle of fears and struggles. "Above all, he is zestful," McMurtry writes. "Without zest in the face of hardship, travel writing becomes little more than a record of misery."

Kennan went on to become an accomplished and trusted journalist.

But this is a young man's account, told with youthful enthusiasm and irreverence; occasionally the price is a youth's cultural naivete--his disapproval of Korak women's behavior during a wedding ceremony, for example.

Some of the finest observations are of nature. When the salmon run, he notes: "Dozens of streams were so choked up with fish we could not use the water . . . salmon working their way laboriously upstream in water not deep enough to cover their bodies." Of the Siberian moss steppe, he writes: "In summer, for hundreds of square miles the eternally frozen ground is covered to a depth of two feet with a dense luxurious growth of soft, spongy Arctic moss, with here and there little hillocks of stunted blueberry bushes and clusters of Labrador tea . . . a great, soft, quaking cushion of wet moss."

His observations of the wandering Koraks are interesting, too. He notes that none of their folk songs were of war or heroic deeds; they celebrated domesticity and love rather than pride and anger. He also writes that they were honest, amiable and kind, and that euthanasia, or as he calls it, "murder," was routinely practiced when sickness or age made one unable to continue living the nomadic life.

Kennan's colorful account is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

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