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John Vaillant

I certainly am not the first to suggest that many who write about the world's farther corners succumb occasionally to the temptation to shade and colour their writings in a way that those who scribble closer to home can seldom afford to. Maybe I wouldn't go so far as the late Geoffrey Moorhouse, who believed all travel writers, at heart, to be fibbers; but from personal experience I know well that many writers, when separated from their readers by many thousands of miles and so less likely to be found out, will, as the saying has it, sex things up. They will make this event a tad more thrilling, that grass a little more green, those remarks a smidgen more dazzling, than if they were telling tales from just down the road. And who can blame them, really? Tall stories are the best, perhaps - so long as the reader know they're tall.

This windy beginning seems necessary just because John Vaillant's remarkable new book is an exercise in reportage from somewhere that is very, very far away indeed, and is, in addition, so extraordinary a tale as to positively demand a healthy dollop of skepticism.

He has chosen as his setting that part of far eastern Russia known as Primorye Territory, or Outer Manchuria, a vast and cold ocean of trees that is closer to Melbourne than it is to the Moscow from which it is notionally ruled. It is a place, well beyond what we think of as Siberia, a place of prison camps and million-mile muskeg, of lonely railway halts and secret atomic cities, of vicious little wars (with China, mainly) and immense blood-sucking insects, of impenetrable forests and men of great hardiness and grit.

It is also home to the unutterably magnificent, very rare, stunningly beautiful and legendarily vengeful giant cat Panthera tigris altaica, the Siberian tiger. A third of a ton of tooth and claw and quiet distemper, this haunting beast, padding silently between the trees, is the true hero of a book that manages to be at once exciting, memorable - and perfectly, impeccably right.

Because John Vaillant, though telling of a place so far away, does not in any sense shade or colour his writings. And I am able to say this forcefully because of something that the editor who assigned this review did not know: that the Primorye is an area of the faraway world that, by peculiar chance, I happen to know rather well.

I have been to the Amur River on a score of occasions. I have lived in the region's capital city, Khabarovsk, for many weeks. Several times I have explored the length of Chekhov's infamous Sakhalin Island - indeed, I had been climbing Mount Pushkin there on the day that Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed. I have lived with the fish-skin-wearing, birch-bark-tent-inhabiting Oroqen people of far northern Manchuria. And I have seen Kurosawa's classic and unforgettable Primorye film, Dersu Uzala, more frequently than I can remember, and have introduced countless happy film fans to see its legendary sequences. So if this book did happen to ring slightly less than true, believe me, I would know.

But it doesn't. Any skepticism on my part was quite unwarranted. This turns out to be a quite a brilliant addition to the - admittedly very spare - literature of the region. And it is a book that recounts with power and excitement the true story of a titanic confrontation that took place deep in the Ussuri forests, in the harsh midwinter at the end of 1997.

One party to the fight was an immensely tough Russian - a middle-aged ex-soldier named Yuri Trush, a former Soviet Master of Sports, a champion weightlifter and kayaker, a man skilled in karate, akido and knife-handling, and who was a squad leader in a crack Russian government organization called Inspection Tiger. The other, stealthily and angrily stalking alone deep in the endless woods, was an immense and many-times-wounded Siberian tiger who, with little doubt, then held a grudge - a possibly not entirely untigerly emotion, one learns here - against male humans in particular, and most especially against a local beekeeper and impoverished hunter who had some while before hunted and killed one of his tiger-children.

This tiger - an animal so powerful that it does not surprise us to learn here that the brand-word Viagra comes from the Sanskrit rendering of its kin - kills in this story more than once, and does so dreadfully. In one case, he feeds so lustily on his victim that the man - a poet, cruelly, but not the man who attacked his children; that man he had eaten a day or so before - is reduced by the tiger's jaws to less meat than might conveniently fit into a shirt pocket.

I will spare the intrigued reader the outcome of the hunt, and of the details of the confrontation, the struggle, the collision of irresistible human firepower and immovable animal majesty - but let is simply be said that John Vaillant - whose previous book, The Golden Spruce, won the Governor-General's Award for non-fiction - has told a tale of astonishing power and vigour, with enough brio and colour to have made it a near-certainty that Hollywood would want this to be offered up in double-quick time. This is a film that demands to be made with 3-D charges of stripes and rifle fire and Dolby-magnified thunder roars. (For what other creature, asks one character, roars back at storms, thus answering the Creator in his own language?)

Brad Pitt has bought the rights and is said to be readying himself to cry Action! The Primorye Krai is thus now a world perched on the edge of becoming famous - or it would become so, if only it were not so far away, wedged into a place hospitable only to a few strong men and about 400 or so very big cats, and guarded by their razor-sharp teeth and claws of tungsten hardness, and by unimaginable depths of its deep, deep falls of snow. So read this fine, true book in the warmth, beside the flicker of firelight. Read it and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Simon Winchester's Atlantic: A Biography of the Ocean, will be published in November.

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