When the Whales Leave

Milkweed Editions, 2020.
$14, 136 pages. Available here.

A YOUNG WOMAN named Nau lives alone on the edge of an Arctic sea, where she falls in love with a whale. The whale, Reu, returns her adoration, and transforms into a man’s body to live with her. “What will we do?” Nau asks him. Reu tells her, “We will live a new kind of life. A human life.” 

On a rocky spit of land by the sea, Nau gives birth to whale babies; they must live in the water, leaving Nau to worry for them, listening for their breath at night. Winter brings ice to cover the sea. Spring takes it away. Nau and Reu sing the first songs. Nau gives birth to human children, who learn to hunt from their father. They kill reindeer on the tundra and walruses on ice floes. They see their brother-whales, spouting in the deep. Reu and Nau grow old. Before Reu dies, he tells his children, “every whale is your brother. To be a brother does not require that you look the same. Kinship means much more than that.”

Nau survives. No one living with her knows how old she is. Nau insists that all people are her descendants, and that she created language because of her yearning to speak with Reu. The people do not dispute this, and tolerate her, but are busy leading their own lives. One man is lost while hunting on the sea ice, and is only saved by whales bringing him home. Another man, Givu, follows the paths of whales around the world.

These are people and events of Yuri Rytkheu’s spare, evocative novel When the Whales Leave. If their shape-shifting and time-bending seem foreign to twentyfirst-century English-language readers, it is because the story is from a far time and place. Rytkheu was born ninety years ago in Uelen, a community on a rocky spit of land by the sea so far to Russia’s northeast it is just sixty miles from Alaska. Rytkheu, who died in 2008, was Chukchi, one of the region’s two Indigenous peoples. He grew up eating whale and living near the ribs of whales long dead and hearing stories of whales who became people and people who might be whales. Cetaceans anchored both life and art.

Rytkheu came of age when the Soviet Union took control of the Chukchi Peninsula in 1923 and the world became unanchored. Rytkheu was in the first generation of Indigenous children schooled in the promises of socialism. He studied literature at university and wrote, in Russian, for the regional newspaper, then literary journals. By the time he published When the Whales Leave in 1975, it had been years since the Chukchi had killed a whale themselves. Instead, industrial ships “rationalized” hunting at sea and deposited carcasses on shore without ceremony or celebration. In his early stories, Rytkheu applauded such changes; he was a popular writer, and his stories about the arrival of electricity and formal education inscribed the Soviet Union’s narrative of progress on the Bering Sea coast.

When the Whales Leave came at a turning point in Rytkheu’s literary work. As both he and the Soviet project aged, his writing turned toward Chukchi narrative forms, and away from championing industrialized progress. Rytkheu does so subtly in When the Whales Leave. In most of the book, time has a fluid, looping quality, contrasted against precise Arctic details. Winters and summers come and go, the sun rises and sets, whales leave and visit. Nau lives on, “the ancient woman who seemed to live—together with her whale tales—outside time itself.” Timeless Nau is always present to tell her people to treat whales as kin.

In the third and final section of the book, Givu’s grandson Armagirgin breaks this pact. When Givu tells him that whales are his brothers, Armagirgin says he does not “‘want those ugly floating monsters” as relations. He mocks Nau and her teachings. Armagirgin grows into an accomplished hunter—too accomplished, killing with cruelty and to excess. He boasts that “only men are true masters of the world! And we will take whatever we need, giving no thanks and asking no one’s permission!” (In the original Russian, this echoes a passage in the Brothers Karamazov where Fyodor Dostoevsky shows the moral consequences of men acting like gods). As a result, nature ceases working as expected, time falls out of joint, and the waters off the spit of land “did not swarm with creatures as they once used to. Every living thing had  gone, swam away, flown off.”

Rytkheu brings this tale of knowledge gained and lost to a poignant and ethically forceful close. As with the rest of When the Whales Leave, it shines in Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse’s translation, which is far more lyrical and joyous than a previous 1977 English version in Soviet Literature. In particular, Chavasse renders the expansive quality of Rytkheu’s prose, his formal attempt to write the feeling of “tales passed down by word of mouth.” When the Whales Leave has an epic sensibility, but is also saturated in Arctic detail; the rendering of ice, snow, wind, and water are particularly poetic. English readers are in Chavasse’s debt for bringing Rytkheu’s world into ours: a slender novel with a wide message, imploring we cease imagining ourselves masters before all our seas become “bereft of any sign of life.” O


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Bathsheba Demuth is author of Floating Coast, as well as assistant professor of history and environment and society at Brown University.