In Firesong, noted writer of espionage novels Joseph Hone (1937-2016) tries his hand at the sprawling epic; 700 pages following Prince and Princess Rumovsky, members of the St Petersburg nobility, in the tumultuous 14 years between New Year 1906 and Christmas 1920.
Firesong is then a ‘Russia in the time of revolution’ novel. Like others of this sub-genre —Barnaby William’s Revolution (1994), James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love (2005), Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist (2016)— Firesong sets up the pre-revolutionary life of its central characters and then explores the impact of revolution and civil war on the same.
The epic is not Russia in Fiction’s favourite genre. That said, there is plenty here to fascinate and to enlighten from the Russia-in-fiction perspective. Not least, we learnt stuff about Harbin.
Gillian Slovo’s novel begins and ends in ice. Set in Leningrad, Ice Road follows about half a dozen characters through the decade from the early 1930s to the early 1940s.
Leningrad’s headline story over that period sees the death of one —Sergei Kirov, the city’s Party Leader assassinated in 1934—, followed by the deaths of many in the gathering brutality of Stalin’s purges, before unfurling to the prospective death of all in the genocidal 872 day Siege of Leningrad by the forces of Nazi Germany (1941-1944).
Readers who know even the outline of the Soviet Union’s path are aware of what is coming in the historical narrative as the novel progresses. Less evident, and —to Gillian Slovo’s credit— far less predictable than might be imagined, are the paths of her characters’ lives as they plot their courses through these times.
After more than two decades silence, a journalist who was once expelled from the Soviet Union has made contact. With a resurgent Russia back on the scene, his knowledge of how things used to be in Moscow could once again be useful.
But why was he so silent for so long? Can this really be the same man? And what do the things he learnt nearly 40 years ago tell us about Russia today?
You could be forgiven for thinking that these opening sentences sound like the back cover blurb for Fatal Ally. They are not. They are about its author, Tim Sebastian.
Russia in Fiction has several times repeated our short list of the best writers of Cold War espionage novels. It goes, John le Carré, rhymes with Charles McCarry, and add a couple of Bobs (Littell and Moss).
But have we yet reviewed a Robert Littell espionage novel? It’s a rhetorical question.
Russia in Fiction has reviewed a le Carré (Our Kind of Traitor), a couple of McCarrys (The Secret Lovers and Old Boys), and one and half Moss’s (Moscow Rules, and The Spike co-written with Arnaud de Borchegrave).
And now we finally get round to reviewing a Robert Littell book, and what do you know, it is not one of his invariably terrific espionage novels. In fact it is not even a book we enjoyed much. But it is a fine novel from the Russia-in-fiction perspective, written by a skilled writer with undeniable panache and wit and knowledge of Russia.
To the Hermitage tells parallel tales of men who travelled to St Petersburg. Both are fictionalised versions of actual journeys.
One being that of Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, who visited his patron, and Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, in 1773.
The other being the anonymous narrator of To the Hermitage, a version of Bradbury himself —English academic and author— making his way to St Petersburg as a member of a distinguished study group, the Diderot Project, in October 1993.
The very temporal settings speak of the novel’s parallelism.
Russia then as now was in trouble, tugged as it ever has been between east and west.To the Hermitage, chapter 21
Red Plenty is a beautiful departure from the standard depictions of the Soviet Union in English-language fiction. Francis Spufford’s novel takes the reader not just to Russia in the years of Khrushchevian optimism, but into the heads of a succession of superbly drawn characters who experience those days from their different perspectives.
Front and centre are bright young believers in the Communist idea that rational scientific planning, deployed with intelligence and determined good will, represented a transformative step forward for humankind. We are not talking dull one-dimensional ideologues loaded down with notions of superpower competition, but bright individuals, excited to be alive at that time in a place where the dream of plenty seemed within reach.
once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world. For a short while it even looked —and not just to Nikita Khrushchev— as if the story might be coming true … This book is about that moment.Red Plenty, p. 5
Predictable we may be, but Russian in Fiction couldn’t resist reviewing in succession two books with identical titles.
Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules (2008) is a very different sort of thriller from Robert Moss’s Moscow Rules (1985), in terms of both aspects of Russia in Fiction’s reviewing template.
Russia in Fiction asks two things about the books we review. What is the novel like? And how does it portray Russia? For the former, Daniel Silva is a doyen of the novel-a-year, same central character, same formula series. For the latter, when Silva deals with Russia, he tends to the straight down the line, big bad Russia approach; not uncommon at all amongst Western thriller writers, and a useful marker of how Russia has been popularly perceived at particular points of time.
And if this brief opening summary makes it sound like Russia in Fiction doesn’t think much of Daniel Silva’s writing, then we want to correct that misperception immediately.
One of the aims of the Russia in Fiction blog is to get a sense of how Russia is portrayed in English-language fiction over time. What are the themes that come to the fore in different periods? What are the constants? And how realistic is any of this stuff?
One thing that we didn’t expect to find when we started out was quite the number of ‘Chernenko-era’ books that there are. We have written about this before at some length, and don’t want to re-hash all of that here. (Have a look at the review of Russian Spring (1984) by Dennis Jones for more details).
Moscow Rules is another thriller set in the year of Konstantin Chernenko as leader of the Soviet Union (1984-85). It stands out because it recognised, ahead of the events, that the Soviet system was heading to a swift end.
The People’s Act of Love, once read, forms impressions in the mind. Innovative in its setting, memorable in its characters, inventive in the slow-burning complexity of its plot, and deploying language with the savage precision of a cavalryman’s sword decapitating an enemy at full charge; James Meek’s novel delves into lives lived in extremis, as its characters act and love and seek to merge the two.
What is an act of love? Selfless? But selflessness is mediated through self. People do not act alone in an abstract world, be that the abstraction of Marxist ideology or of sectarian theology. Actions affect others, whether they are as close as a spouse or as distant as nameless, unborn, future generations.
Voronezh, Voronezh, Voronezh. Three reviews in a row take Russia in Fiction back there. Though this central Russian city diminishes as we progress. In Black Earth City, Voronezh is the central character. In JUDAS 62 it is the location of the origin plot. In Chameleon, the subject of this post, it is merely the site of a murder that forged the reputation of Mark Burnell’s main Russian character, the oligarch-cum-mafiya boss, Kostya Komarov.
Burnell’s wonderful Petra Reuter tetralogy was published between 1999 and 2005. Here at Russia in Fiction we have re-read them several times, and have learnt to take care when picking up the first in the series (The Rhythm Section), as it usually means reading the four book series all the way through.
The series as a whole is not specifically about Russia, but in Chameleon —the second in the series— Russia comes more to the fore, in the character of Kostya Komarov.