Kolymsky Heights | Lionel Davidson | 1994 (this edn 2015) | Faber & Faber | 478p | Bought copy | Buy the book
Deep within Siberia lies a science research station that is so secret no scientist who works there is ever allowed to leave. But one day a message gets out. A professor at Oxford University receives a note that is no note – a cigarette paper that conceals a coded plea, imploring the professor to ‘send me therefore the man’. The professor is not above doing a little bit of work for government agencies (after all, he may have taught some of their agents) and soon an agent from the CIA is helping him to work out just who the message is from and who this other man might me. It isn’t that difficult to work out either. As for the latter, the professor knows him as the Raven, but to the CIA he is Jean-Baptiste Porteur, otherwise known as Johnny Porter, a native Canadian with a gift for languages, a fascination for Arctic tribes and in possession of a past. The scientist trapped in Siberia did something significant for Porter in the past. For that reason alone Porter is prepared to risk everything to go in after him.
What follows is an extraordinarily detailed and meticulous account of Porter’s journey into Siberia. Nothing is left to chance, or to the reader’s imagination. Porter is an astonishing, obsessive, driven individual. He is determined to leave no trail and as a result his journey is an agonising Arctic sea voyage aboard a Japanese vessel. But he doesn’t just transform himself the once, when he finally reaches Siberia he does it again, this time he is a truck driver. All of the time he manages to fit in (largely due to his languages and native Canadian appearance) while still standing out as something of a curiosity. He uses smiles, charisma, generosity and charm to win over all he meets. Women love him, men want to be his friend. The true Porter is a man deeply buried and there is a sense that only the scientist hidden within the research station knows the truth.
Kolmysky Heights is a very unusual thriller. Arguably, the mystery at the heart of the novel is of far less importance than the lengths to which Porter will go to find it and to escape with it. This is much more about the hunt and the method and in that sense it reads like a classic spy thriller. Of course, the novel was first published 21 years ago but it reaches back further than that. There is a severe detachment between Porter and the reader. While we marvel at the lengths he will go to, we are never allowed to get too close, the author’s persona frequently coming between us. There is a merciless ruthlessness in Porter’s actions and even though the novel hints at a developing love affair I remained sceptical about its future but having said that – do we know him enough to make this kind of judgement? There are clues about his past and they do go some way towards explaining his present, while not perhaps indicating what he wants. All in all, Porter is a fascinating, complicated individual and Kolymsky Heights is very much a novel about him, more than it is about anyone or anything else.
It’s not all Porter, though. I did enjoy the portrait of the Oxford professor and his secretary. There’s a charm about this scenario which contrasts sharply with Porter and his world. Some of the characters we meet in Siberia are vividly distinct, many of whom are making a living in the most extreme of killer environments, whether at sea or driving great trucks (‘boats’) along the frozen rivers of a winter Siberia. One of the characters we meet, Ludmilla, is unforgettable. One of the greatest characters of the novel is without doubt Siberia itself – its relentless cold, its rich cultural heritage, its harsh history, its cruelty and its frozen beauty are all made real on the page in what is an astonishing achievement by Davidson.
Kolymsky Heights has been reissued this year with an introduction by Philip Pullman in which Pullman explains why this is ‘the best thriller I’ve ever read’. This essay is worth reading at the beginning and again at the end. Much of it I agree with. The detail that Davidson conjures up to describe Porter’s journey into and from Siberia is remarkable as well as complex, it is also extremely dramatic and tense. But, for me, there was just a little too much detail – by the end of the book I felt almost qualified to build an Arctic bobik vehicle myself. While these lengthy sections undoubtedly help us to understand Porter’s commitment and ingenuity, not to mention audacity, they do slow down the pace quite considerably. There was also a great deal about the science research station that I wanted to know but this is left completely and quite intentionally secondary to the unerring focus on Porter.
Kolymsky Heights is a thoroughly immersive thriller, rich in Siberian history and culture and it is freezing cold to the core. The novel, nor Porter, engaged my emotions but I don’t think it wanted to. This is a novel – and leading character – to marvel at. It’s not my favourite thriller – that title belongs to Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal – but it is groundbreaking and significant as well as one of the finest depictions of a quest that I am likely ever to read.