To a Distant Island
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: Jan-31-2005
During a sabbatical year in Florence, English professor and writer James McConkey immersed himself in reading Anton Chekhov’s works, as well as biographies of the Russian writer. He began to feel a particular affinity for Chekhov’s crisis of 1889-1890 and his resolution of that crisis by traveling alone to Sakhalin Island off the eastern coast of Siberia to investigate conditions in the penal colonies that the Russian government had established in that distant region. Perhaps because McConkey himself was recovering from a series of traumatic experiences in his own life, he felt a kinship to this depressed young Russian author and his search for a new direction in life.
McConkey responded to this feeling of kinship by writing To a Distant Island, which is partly biographical, in that it retells the story of Chekhov’s six month long journey to Sakhalin Island in 1890; and partly a memoir, in that McConkey relates Chekhov’s life events to the feelings and events of his own life at the time. McConkey establishes this perspective from the beginning, when he explains why he refers to Chekhov throughout the book as "T": "I honor the man too much to call him by name throughout an account, which. . . is bound to be a fiction of my own" (8).
To a Distant Island dwells especially on the motivation for Chekhov’s journey to Sakhalin, a question scholars have debated for a hundred years now. Of the many contributing reasons for the trip, McConkey chooses to highlight and fictionalize "the suicidal tendency that surfaced again a decade later in the marriage his health simply couldn’t afford" (26). McConkey refines this to "T. wants to escape--he wants out, at whatever the personal cost" (27). It is in this state of mind (or soul) that the brilliant and sensitive T. begins his journey to the end of the earth.
Perhaps as a metaphor that characterizes any human quest, McConkey devotes most of the writing and energy to T’s justification, preparation, and outward-bound journey. Only 37 pages remain for the story of what happens to his hero once the goal is achieved; and less than 6 pages for the homeward trek (or homeward "sail" in this case). [This is a technique, come to think of it, quite the opposite of Homer’s in "The Odyssey"!]
The conclusion? "Sakhalin, then, gave to T. nothing he hadn’t known all along. . . Perhaps despair--that absence of hope--is a requisite for any deepened understanding of a universal hope for something never to be found in the present time or place" (82).
Paul Dry Books
This account of Chekhov’s journey is tautly and compellingly written. Though McConkey uses an adhesive slurry of fiction and personal essay to bind his facts together, the journey emerges as realer and more authentic than Chekhov’s biographers have made it. However, if you want to stick to the "facts," you can find straightforward and readable accounts in several biographies, including, for example, those by Ernest J. Simmons (1962), Donald Rayfield (1997), and Phillip Callow (1998). [See annotations in this database.]
McConkey wrote To a Distant Island in 1984, before Brian Reeve’s English translation of Chekhov’s A Journey to Sakhalin became available (see annotation in this database). Readers can now experience the journey through Chekhov’s own eyes and ears, and do it in much greater detail, but they also should remember that Chekhov’s own account is likely to be at least as fictional as McConkey’s version.
Chekhov’s book is certainly preferable if you only intend to read one on this topic and are willing to invest 494 pages into the project; otherwise, you might well consider choosing To a Distant Island as your definitive vision of Chekhov’s journey. I should add, however, that Chekhov’s own report includes a great deal of interesting medical and public health stuff that you won’t find in books written about him by his literary-minded disciples and biographers.