Remembering the first novel I read — Konsalik’s Natalia

I was recently thinking about how I love to find out about, and dig up little-known books. I get a rush from it, sorta like I’m discovering a treasure; which they are; treasures of forgotten and/or little-known stories!

I then found myself thinking about the first novel I recall reading, which in some ways may be part of that category of little-known books, at least depending on where you live. This book in question is by German author Heinz G. Konsalik, titled Natalia (French edition).

I was quite young, not even ten yet, growing up in Brussels and found this book among my mom’s collection. I don’t know how she came about it, but given her German background, she was likely already familiar with the author’s long list of literary achievements. (My parents also did briefly have a spiritual bookstore in 80’s Brussels, which I wrote about in my short story collection, but this novel wouldn’t have been sold there.)

Aside from the title—reminiscent of my own name—I remember being struck by the cover and the attractive, femme-fatale like woman featured on it. Reading the synopsis quickly lured me, and which, translated to English, reads something like:

“Even in the era of the sputnik, the infinite Siberian taiga forest remains largely unknown. Dangerous. Just about inaccessible to “outsiders.” It’s another world, filled with sometimes horrible legends…

Here we are in the taiga, in the village of Sadovka where strange characters live, such as the priest Tigran or the widow Anastasia Alexeievna… In the heart of the village, a house remains shut, uninhabited. And when the engineer Tassbug, arriving from the city, wants to rent it, Anastasia tells him that it’s impossible, because for nearly two centuries frightening, supernatural things have been happening there…

Throwing caution to the wind, Tassburg enters the premises. He’ll be greatly surprised to find there a proud and wild young woman: Natalia. She’s run across the taiga, tracked down by the brutal Kassougai, who passes her off as a murderer. And now she’s hiding… But is it really Natalia whom Tassburg has in front of him? Or is it not the ghost of the one who was killed there long ago, the countess Albina Igorevna?

Konsalik’s new novel brings us to one of the famous writer’s favorite locations: the dark and mysterious taiga. In this setting, a fabulous adventure, perils, enigmas, intersect to the reader’s great delight. And the moving face of Natalia, the beautiful heroine who attempts to escape all fate’s evil designs, remains unforgettable.”

I guess it was meant to be because it felt right up my alley, and I gladly dived in!

^French book synopsis

Of course, I can’t say that this was the actual *first* book I read. After all, by then I’d already read quite some popular Belgian comics, not to mention all the animal books and baby books that had come my way… But this is definitely the first novel I read, and I do recall a sense of a ‘rite of passage,’ and feeling grown up at the thought of graduating to this kind of ‘adult’ genre. It was several hundred pages after all, and no images, haha! 😀 What might’ve looked intimidating quickly proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable read, encompassing adventure, paranormal themes, and romance topped with a strong—if wounded—heroine.

It’s interesting that up to that point I didn’t have anything to compare it to, so there was something about this type of story that interested me. I’m not against the view that I may have been energetically picking up on its themes, long before I knew anything about these things (after all, children are naturally sensitive if often unaware of that ability to ‘sense’ things; a trait which we may unfortunately suppress and/or ignore as we get older).

In retrospect, it’s easy for me to see that reading this book may have—at least in some ways— influenced my subsequent tastes in books. I’ve realized a while ago that some of the stories I tended to be drawn to involved a combination of strong women… and rather dramatic / sad narratives. Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Flaubert’s Salammbo are a few that come to mind. This was a bit of a revelation to me, since the drawing point for me wasn’t the sadness per se; perhaps I was looking for something bigger to come out of that, and which I suppose perhaps I found, if subconsciously, while reading the stories. It’s not that I ‘liked’ sad endings—I rather love happy ones!—but I suppose part of me did feel that the sadness made the stories a bit more ‘real,’ for who can go through life without hardships? Or maybe it was seeing characters go through these things and still come out fine (at least at times?) that fascinated me… Like most things, there are likely multiple, complex reasons for my early interest in such narratives.

Interestingly enough, Natalia differs from these stated examples as it doesn’t really have a ‘sad’ ending, but definitely has its fair share of drama and intensity. All the same, I’ve never forgotten it and only wished the story was more well-known and accessible…

Which eventually led me to wondering if the book had been translated to English. For a long time, it appeared that it was only available in German and French. I contacted the publisher, who eventually replied with a link to the English version, titled “The Damned of the Taiga.” This struck me as odd, for it doesn’t really seem to fit with the story (it could in some ways, but still, why not just preserve the original name?). By now I have reasons to doubt this is accurate info, in part due to the original German titles. Natalia‘s original German title is Natalia, ein mädchen aus der taiga (which would read more like Natalia, a girl from the taiga, and which in French at least preserves the same Natalia name). So cue in my surprise to see there’s an actual German Konsalik novel titled, Die Verdammten der Taiga, literally translated to The Condemned / Damned of the Taiga… ?! This seems to point to the fact that they’re distinct novels, albeit set in a similar location; therefore making it possible that Natalia still hasn’t been translated to English… And I definitely think it should be! (Shall I volunteer for the role?! 😀 )

Also, as is the case with many great stories, I never stopped thinking what a great movie it would make. Of course filmmaking is a different medium, and while it wouldn’t be exactly like the book, it’d be another way of enjoying the story 🙂 (An NY Times article states that “The Damned of the Taiga” was made into one, but even then I’ve yet to find anymore information on that.)