Review 2010: Punishment of a Hunter

When Zaitsev and his homicide team in 1930 Leningrad investigate the death of Faina Baranova, he knows there is something odd about it. Although all her clothing is practical, she is dressed in velvet and posed before red curtains the neighbors in her communal apartment say are not hers. There is something theatrical in the scene. However, after months, the team finds no clues.

In a meeting at work of the OGPU, Zaitsev is accused of hiding bourgeois origins. He claims he knows nothing about his father, having grown up in an orphanage. Pasha, his building janitor, shows up in support and claims to have known his mother; nevertheless, some days later he is arrested.

After a few months, he is released without explanation. Zaitsev soon figures out he is to solve another murder, this time of a group of people on the site of a new park planned by Kirov, head of the party in Leningrad. The unspoken message is solve the case or go back to jail. However, because he’s been released, his colleagues no longer trust him and won’t speak to him about work.

Aside from presenting an intriguing mystery, Punishment of a Hunter evokes 1930 Leningrad, beautiful but gray and tired, the atmosphere paranoid, citizens poorly clad and fed. I was convinced by this post-revolutionary world as I was not by the popular A Gentleman in Moscow. I hope Pushkin Press will be publishing more books by Yakovlevna.

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Review 1886: Dostoevsky in Love

Up until now, it has seemed to me that biographies fall into two categories: more academic works that are full of notes and citations and are sometimes turgid or too detailed or works meant primarily for the public that often list no backup material whatsoever and are sometimes sensational or even untruthful. Dostoevsky in Love makes an interesting compromise between the two. It is short at a couple hundred pages, it does include notes, and it somehow distills a sense of the true person that pages and pages of detail may not. Dostoevsky lived an interesting life and Christofi relates the events and Dostoevsky’s ideas in an interesting way, including quotations from his work to illustrate his points.

Dostoevsky’s life was difficult. He was poor for most of it, yet one reason was his generosity. (Unfortunately, another was his addiction to gambling, which he finally conquered.) Most of his life was spent in ill health, including epilepsy, serious bladder infections, and finally emphysema. As a young author, his first work was acclaimed, his next reviled, and then he was arrested for his radical politics and spent four years in Siberia (after suffering through a fake execution), followed by a stint of extra compulsory military service (he had already completed his usual service) with years before he was allowed to go to either Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Finally, in the last few years of his life, he gained the recognition he deserved, but he was still so poor that his wife Anna had no money to bury him with.

I found this to be an absorbing book. I have always wondered why most of Dostoevsky’s characters seemed to be in a frenzy, and now I think it’s because he himself was often in a frenzy, beset as he was with cares.

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Review 1831: The Tolstoy Estate

Paul Bauer, an army surgeon during the World War II German invasion of Russia, finds himself stationed at Yasnaya Polyana, the ancestral estate of Leo Tolstoy. It is set up as a field hospital.

The men are startled to find a woman on the estate—Katerina Trubetzkaya, the Head Custodian. She and the estate workers refuse to leave. Bauer, who speaks a little Russian and is an admirer of Tolstoy, finds himself almost immediately falling in love with her.

This novel details the six weeks of the German army’s occupation of Yasnaya Polyana. Toward the middle, the book jumps ahead in the form of letters to tell what happened to the characters.

I enjoyed this novel. I thought that the descriptions of the field hospital and the characters’ activities seemed convincing. Particularly convincing seemed the descriptions of the cold. Conte does a good job of humanizing the German soldiers while still including some inflexible and dogmatic soldiers and some true Fascists. For example, the commander, Julius Metz, is slowly becoming unhinged from treatments of amphetimines.

Despite the novel being described in grandiose terms on the cover, I felt there was something slight about it. The love affair it was centered on wasn’t very convincing, for one thing, and I didn’t like how the letters broke the forward action of the plot and somehow seemed to trivialize the story. They certainly destroyed any suspense about whether the main characters would survive.

Since Tolstoy seems to be important to Conte, perhaps he could have found some way to sustain this importance. He says in the acknowledgements that both the Soviet and German soldiers were “acutely conscious of the site’s cultural, ideological, and even metaphysical significance,” but in the novel, of the Germans only Bauer and Metz, in his weird way, seem to be. I read this for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1670: Classics Club Spin Result! The Brothers Karamazov

I selected The Brothers Karamazov for my Classics club list because I read it many years ago for Russian Literature and found it fascinating. I was curious how I would regard it now.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, but it is complicated by the characters’ relationships and several subplots, some of which are only tangentially related. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons whom as children he left to be raised by the servants. The oldest, Dmitri (or Mitya), is an ex-soldier whom Fyodor has cheated of part of his inheritance from his mother. Now, although Dmitri is engaged to Katarina, a girl of high moral values, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, a girl with an unsavory past, and Fyodor is trying to compete for her. The second oldest, Ivan, is a cold intellectual atheist. The third son, Alexei or Alyosha, is studying to be a monk.

In my old Penguin Classics edition, the novel is split into two volumes. It is not until the second volume that the action takes place that is the centerpiece of the novel. Fyodor is murdered. Mitya has been working himself into a frenzy and making threats so is immediately the prime suspect. Did Mitya kill his father or was it someone else? If so, who?

We readers know what Mitya did that night, so we can answer the first part of that question but not the second part, at least not right away. Dostoevsky (I’m going to use the spelling of his name that I’m accustomed to, and that indeed is on my old Penguin copy rather than the one shown on the title page above) isn’t interested so much in that but in what happens next. And ultimately he is engaged in pitting atheism against belief in God.

In my student days, I found the long philosophical passages in this novel fascinating. These days, I don’t have as much patience with them and I actually skipped a couple of chapters once I got their drift. The amount of time spent on Father Zossima, for example, a relatively minor character who dies in Book One, is a little inexplicable to me now. I can’t help feeling he might have been based on a real person whom Dostoevsky revered, but his presence in the novel doesn’t seem important enough to warrant several chapters being devoted to his life and sayings.

This is not to say that I didn’t find the novel compelling. Although it is long and sometimes difficult, there was something about it that made me want to keep reading it.

The novel is written with an unusual approach to point of view. The narrator is an unidentified person from “our town.” But the narrator is privy to scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. Yet, the point of view is not omniscient. For example, we see what Mitya does on the night of the murder even though there is no actual witness to that, but we don’t see the murder.

As usual with Dostoevsky, most of his characters are in a frenzy. Were 19th century Russians really this excited? Well, they’re not in Tolstoy, but most of Tolstoy’s characters are upper class, while Dostoevsky’s are not. So, I don’t know whether this is a class difference or a difference in the author’s perceptions or what. And speaking of class, the attitude toward peasants here is not great, and there are also other politically incorrect comments on occasion. Just a warning.

The Brothers Karamazov is considered Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, so if you are interested in Russian literature, you should definitely read it. Dostoevsky’s preoccupations are not mine, however, and I think even less so as I get older. I couldn’t help parsing some of the arguments and thinking about an implicit slant to them. The best example is an assumption—a sort of cognitive leap—that is very important to the plot and is stated several times by different characters. The cognitive leap is that if God doesn’t exist, “everything is permitted.” Only one character questions this assumption—that there is nothing within humans besides religion to stop them from doing horrendous things. But his suggestion is brushed aside because Dostoevsky wants you to conclude that there is a God and his arguments don’t work as well if you believe in inner goodness or inherently moral or ethical behavior. I guess.

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Review 1554: The Vanishing Futurist

Right before the start of World War I, Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to be a governess for the Kobelev family. There she falls in love with one of Pasha Kobelev’s friends, Nikita Slavkin, a brilliant, idealistic scientist and revolutionary. Although Gerty is not political, she eagerly embraces the life of a communard in a commune Slavkin founds in the Kobelev’s house after the revolution. With them are Pasha and his sister Sonya and a few other young people.

Slavkin’s mission becomes to invent a machine that will change people’s cellular structure making them perfect Communists. Eventually, he comes to believe that he can make a machine that will transport a person into another dimension where perfect Communism is possible. Certainly, it doesn’t seem possible in the present one.

Hobson’s novel skillfully depicts the idealist euphoria and immense creativity of the early days of the Russian revolution as well as the hardships, the inevitable disintegration of communal life, and the craziness of those days as the revolution begins to turn in on itself. It makes really interesting reading and seems to much more authentically depict the time than any of the recent novels I’ve read about it.

I read this book for my Walter Scott Prize project and really enjoyed it.

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Review 1500: Sofia Petrovna

The heroine of Sofia Petrovna is an ordinary Soviet woman, not political but a happy worker at a publishing house. She has a son, Kolya, a promising engineering student who is a dedicated party member.

Then things begin to go wrong. She hears of the arrest of some doctors, one of whom she knows. They have been accused of sabotage. She can hardly believe it. He seemed like such a nice man. But if they say it is true, it must be. Then Kolya is arrested.

Lydia Chukovskaya’s novella about the Great Purge under Stalin was written in 1939-40, and she kept it hidden for years. A Soviet publishing company accepted it for publication in 1962, but when it was almost ready, backed out. It was finally published in Europe in 1965 after having been smuggled out of the country.

This is a deeply interesting and harrowing novella about what happens to an individual when the world seems to have gone crazy.

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Review 1357: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

In the early 20th century, Teffi was Russia’s most famous writer, a journalist, short story writer, and playwright. In 1918, after the October Revolution, an impresario persuaded her to travel to Odessa along with a troupe of actors and other performers to give some readings. She ended up four years later in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life. This book relates the beginning of her journey.

The dangers of revolutionary Moscow convinced her to leave, but she never meant the move to be more than temporary. People had been disappearing from the city, and it wasn’t clear whether they left voluntarily, were killed, or were deported to Siberia.

The journey to Odessa was harrowing. Conditions were chaotic. At one stop in Ukraine, only their status as performers saved them from the authorities, who were murdering train passengers to take their valuables.

In Odessa, Teffi found almost a holiday atmosphere, meeting some of the people who had disappeared from Moscow. Soon, though, everyone was panicking at the approach of the Bolshevik army.

This book is written in a lively, quirky style with a great deal of humor. Although Teffi herself is sometimes naive, she observes events with a satirical eye. Yet, at times, she is lyrical in her longing for her homeland.

I put this book on my Classics Club list because I was unfamiliar with it and it sounded interesting. Then it came up for my Classics Club Spin. I am glad to have read it. I am interested in Russia, and it gives a much more accurate idea of the effects of the Russian revolution than books like A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Review 1348: The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks

Cover for The Ukrainian and Russian NotebooksFor anyone who has not followed recent Russian history very closely, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks are eye openers. Drawn and written by acclaimed Italian graphic artist Igort, they are the result of two years he spent traveling in the Ukraine and Russia listening to people’s stories.

The Ukrainian Notebook focuses on the Stalin-era Holodomor. This was a government-caused famine imposed on the Kulaks—the Ukrainian farmers who owned their own land—to force them into collectivization. At the time, Ukraine was a rich agricultural region, but by the time the Soviets had finished, millions had starved or been deported to Siberia and the land was a desert. The notebooks tell some stories of the survivors as well as stories about the modern effects on the country.

The Russian Notebook focuses on state-sponsored assassinations, rapes, and kidnappings that are going on under Putin. In particular, it starts with the murder of human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya and her attempts to help the Chechens. Then it goes on to explore the cause of the Chechens.

Finally, the book ends with an epilogue about the more current situation in Ukraine and the Russian “mandate” to take it back.

Since my husband and I are interested in Russia, these notebooks didn’t surprise us, but they may surprise people who are less aware of the recent history of Russia. Igort has written about a lot of other subjects, but his drawing style particularly suits this one.

One small comment about the cartoons. The text is translated, I assume from Italian, and very well done. The text in the illustrations, however, has an occasional typo, and the transliterations of some words from the Russian alphabet are nonstandard with Russian typos, too. For example, on one page, the Russian word “gazetta,” or magazine, is written with the character for “n” instead of “g.” This is a quibble, however, for what is a pair of effective and shocking graphic novels.

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Review 1307: The Revolution of Marina M.

Cover for The Revolution of Marina M.The first thing readers should know before plunging into this 800-page novel is that it is the first of at least two books. There was no hint of this in any of the reviews I read of the book. Still, I was such a fan of Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander, that I probably would have read it anyway.

Marina Makarova is at sixteen a child of privilege, the daughter of a member of the Russian Duma. She has a rebellious streak, though, which she exercises with her friend Varvara, who is working toward the revolution. She also begins an affair with Kolya, a dashing young officer.

Marina is sympathetic towards the plight of the working people, especially the starving families of soldiers at the front. So, she gets involved in revolutionary work without regard to what will happen to the bourgeousie, including her family. Soon, she is excited to be witnessing historic events.

In truth, Marina is not very likable. She is a lousy friend and family member. She throws herself into one situation after another, making one bad decision after another, usually swayed by whoever her lover or closest friend is. She marries a proletariat poet, Genya, only to throw him over as soon as Kolya reappears. She snatches Kolya back out of the arms of her friend Mina. Under Varvara’s influence, she betrays her father to the Bolsheviks.

And that’s part of the problem with this novel. Marina is supposed to be a modern, liberated woman, but she is tossed from one situation to another without much control of her own. She goes from schoolgirl to factory worker to sex slave of a criminal, and takes on the disguise of a boy, a photographer’s assistant, lives with a group of elderly astronomers, pretends to be a peasant wife, and then lives in a commune of a cult. The reviewer from the Chicago Tribune questioned the point of all this. I’m not sure if Fitch is presenting us with an adventure odyssey with a female protagonist or maybe trying to show the effect of the revolution on every strata society (or what?). In any case, all of this happens before Marina’s 20th birthday.

The book has some more problems. Sex is extremely important to Marina, and we get to hear about it in excruciating detail, particularly excruciating when she is imprisoned by a sadistic criminal (a situation that she walked right into). The writing is also over-burdened with metaphors—Fitch never uses one when three will do. Then there is the poetry (ala Doctor Zhivago?). There is lots of it. I am no judge, but it doesn’t seem to be very good.

Strangely, however, despite these flaws, the novel kept me interested, even the part about the cult, although I found parts of that boring. Whether it was interesting enough for me to read part two, though, I doubt. Maybe that will depend upon whether its last words are “End of Part 2.”

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Day 1282: Snowdrops

Cover for SnowdropsBest Book of Five!
At the beginning of Snowdrops, A. D. Miller explains that “snowdrops” are what Russians call the bodies that emerge from the snow after it melts. Sometimes these bodies are of drunks who have fallen asleep in the snow, but sometimes the explanation is more sinister. This note at the beginning of the novel is not the only hint that things are not going to go well for someone.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who has been transferred to Moscow during the reckless years of the 2000’s. He thinks he is worldly and sophisticated, but he has a lot to learn when he meets Masha and her sister, Katya, in the metro one day. He is soon involved in a love affair with Masha, who asks him to help with the paperwork for her elderly aunt’s purchase of an apartment.

During the same time, Nick’s bank is shepherding an investment in oil managed by a character he calls the Cossack, a typical example of the gangsterish businessmen he and his boss have to deal with. Finally, Nick’s elderly neighbor, Oleg Nikolaevich, is worried about the disappearance of his friend.

It doesn’t take much to guess that all three of these situations will go badly wrong, assisted by Nick’s willful blindness because of his infatuation with Masha. It is getting there that is the pleasure of this engaging, slowly unfolding thriller and absorbing character study. Snowdrops is a novel I read for both my James Tait Black and Man Booker Prize projects. It’s really good, teeming with the atmosphere of those lawless days in Moscow.

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