Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Bryon MacWilliams's "With Light Steam"

Bryon MacWilliams is an American writer who was a Moscow-based foreign correspondent for more than a decade. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths, and reported the following:
Hah! Perhaps Ford Madox Ford was onto something. Page 99 begins, fittingly, in a Russian steam bath, or banya – the lens through which With Light Steam delivers Russia to readers. The wealthy owner of a private “trophy” banya in the Ural Mountains is telling me about the recent murder of a son, a moment that speaks to the intimacy of steaming: bathers don't always know each other's names, but can come to know (and intuit) crucial details from each other's lives.

In fact, the connection between Igor Ivanovich and me is so sincere that I'm silent – can't bring myself to say what Russians usually say to express their condolences.

Connection is key to the page, and the chapter, "The Banya Is Communion" – a journey from Moscow to Magnitogorsk and Bashkortostan that shows how what happens between steams can be more important than what happens in the steam room. Each chapter in the book, nonfiction that reads more like a novel, is an episode – spanning from several hours to several days – highlighting aspects of banya culture, the most Russian thing there is.
Igor Ivanovich moves from the uppermost bench to the floor, begins to massage himself in 200-degree heat with bundles of leafy birch twigs, the aspect of steaming he likes best. I offer to whack his back with the leafy veniki, but he declines. He knows what he wants the same way I know not to cool in the icy plunge pool, but to douse myself with water: each time is different because each time we arrive in different bodies.

The main thing in the banya is to listen to the body, then to do what it says.
The page ends with an observation reflected in the centuries-old saying, V tot den' ne starishsya, kotoryi v bane parishya – “You don't age the day you steam in the banya.”

It's true.
Learn more about banya culture at the With Light Steam website.

--Marshal Zeringue