Monday, February 28, 2011

A Literary Treatment of Russia: Part One

Russia has fascinated writers from times immemorial.
Voltaire exchanged quite a copious correspondence with Catherine the Great, whom he called the “Semiramis of the North” and whose authoritarian style he celebrated as much as he admired her war on the Turks.
The Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who took to literature and travel to escape scandals, wrote a travelogue in letters, a sort of hybrid of Tocqueville and Montesquieu, called Lettres de Russie. His fascination with the country is comingled with criticism: “Whenever your son is discontented in France, I have a simple remedy: tell him to go to Russia. The journey is beneficial for any foreigner, for whoever has properly experienced that country will be happy to live anywhere else.” He is considered as having more or less predicted the Revolution and beyond: “One day, the sleeping giant will rise and violence end the tyranny of words. Then, equality distraught will summon the old aristocracy in the defense of freedom, only to find that a neglected weapon, raised too late in too idle hands, has lost its strength.”

21st century writers also fall for Russia. The last four books I read gave me an even bigger appreciation of the phenomenon since out of the four authors, two are not Russians: Sam Eastland and James Meek (but Meek has lived in USSR and then the new Russia), David Benioff has a Russian grandfather and the last one, Alina Bronsky, is a Russian “émigré” of the most recent Western Europe-bound immigration wave after the fall of Communism.

Sam Eastland and James Meek tackle the first part of the XX century in USSR. The most fascinating story within Russian history remains the Romanov Drama. Murdered by the Bolsheviks, the Imperial Family laid in the depth of a mining well somewhere outside Ekaterinenburg for decades. Until they were finally unearthed and identified thanks to DNA after the fall of communism, one was never sure of what had really happened to them, especially to the youngest children, Anastasia and the hemophiliac heir to the throne, Alexei Nicolaievitch.

Sam Eastland is of course aware of the latest developments but still manages to keep the reader alert as to what and how it all really happened. His first historical police thriller, The Eye of the Red Tsar, is a page turner, with the unforgettable figure of the Finnish Inspector Pekkala. Incorruptible “Emerald Eye” of the late Nicolai 2, "a man who could not be threatened or beaten or corrupted into surrendering his sense of what was right or wrong", at the beginning of the story - in 1929- Keppala is exiled in the Gulag and is brought back to civilization by a young commissar, on Stalin’s orders. Stalin is the Red Tsar and he only fears one person, Keppala. The structure of the book, with alternating chapters that tell the reader about Keppala’s past as the second son of a Finnish undertaker and as the “Emerald Eye” while the plot develops around a potential survivor of the Ekaterinenburg massacre, makes for an entertaining read. However, I doubt Sam Eastland’s writing style will ever attain the depth and the elegance of Russian author, Boris Akunin, whose heroic policeman Erast Fandorin remains one of my favorites. The problem lies probably in the fact that Sam Eastland does not master Russian Literature and History as much as native Bakunin (whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili.) This latter author's pseudonym pun on celebrated anarchist Bakunin -in his use of the initial B.(for Boris) Akunin- already informs the reader of more delectable literary and culturally connected surprises to come.

In that respect, James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love is a superbly written book, a strong book, a book set in the past – 1919 in USSR, at the time of the Civil War in Siberia- but that is at the same time very contemporary in its writing. The author focuses exclusively on place, characters and storyline. And what a storyline: the convergence of four principal characters, Anna, Samarin, Balashov and Mutz, each with a different point of view, at a time when the world was taking a new shape! Anna “did not believe in new worlds, but she could not help wanting to be with men and women who did.” Samarin, an escaped political prisoner, [calls himself] “the destruction (…) of everything that stands in the way of the happiness of the people who will be born after I'm dead. (…) A manifestation. Of present anger and future love.” The Christian mystic Balashov leads a sect that is seeking paradise on earth through castration and Mutz, a junior officer of the Czech Legion, simply wants to leave Siberia taking Anna with him. I will not reveal all the twists and turns of this fabulous novel, but cannot help but ask myself the following question: what constitutes a people’s act of love? Is it an act of self-sacrifice to protect the living or an act of destruction, annihilation, for the benefit of future generations? I read this book when it was released in 2005 and am still overwhelmed by it. I also just found out that Johnny Depp bought the rights to produce a movie based on the book. I am both anxious to see it and concerned that the cinematographic treatment of this masterpiece may leave out some of its essence.

To be continued: David Benioff, City of Thieves and Alina Bronsky, Broken Glass Park