As readers of this blog know, the reviews here have a two-fold focus —what is the book like? And what about its representation of Russia in fiction?
Sam Golod is a novel with a strong sense of time and place. It is set in St Petersburg in the early 1990s.
I don’t claim to know St Petersburg well, having only spent a couple of weeks there in total. But these cumulative weeks did come in three different decades —brief visits all during my many trips to Russia. I have seen it as both Leningrad and St Petersburg. I have seen it in darkest December and eternally sunlit June.
Creswell’s descriptive powers are evocative of a St Petersburg that I recognise, through the bitterly cold mid-winter with its fleetingly few hours of weak daylight, to the endless ‘white nights’ of mid-summer when the lack of darkness translates into a city where normal rhythms of sleeping and waking no longer seem to apply.
Natalie, the young English woman who is Sam Golod’s central character, travels around St Petersburg, descending into the deep metro stations, hurrying along the narrow and somewhat eerie canal paths, and sweeping along the embankment in the shiny western cars, an early-1990s novelty in Russia, plucked from the streets of Berlin by criminals and driven East.
Creswell alights too on some memorable features of life immediately after the Soviet system had collapsed. At the back of Natalie’s mind lies disquiet about the reality of her relationship with her lover, the artist Pyotr.
‘I had an uneasy feeling that Pyotr was using me as a shield. In those days a foreigner still had some kind of status, and I suspected he was gambling on them [the authorities, the mafiya] not really letting go while I was there’.sam golod, p. 35
There is a lovely little observation, which struck me because I remember doing the same thing many times in those years. Natalie wants to get into a hotel restaurant, although she is not a guest.
‘A bouncer stops me at the door but he lets me through when I speak to him in English’.
Never failed. Not until about 1995 at least.
Natalie has brief contact with the British authorities in St Petersburg, as circumstances force her to make contact with the recently opened British consulate, based at the time in a hotel suite on the third floor of the Astoria.
As someone who both worked briefly for the British Foreign Office in the early 1990s, and —before that— had contact with them in a similarly urgent ‘friends in distress’ situation in Moscow at exactly the same time , spring 1992, as Natalie does, I homed in on Creswell’s description of this encounter. It made me smile. The description of the British diplomat confronted with a glimpse into Natalie’s crazy St Petersburg existence is lovely.
‘Her name was Elizabeth Garrett, sensible, in her early forties, with short waved hair. I got her out of bed. She wore a very nice blue Viyella dressing gown and red leather slippers. She sat me down and got me a coffee from room service. My hands were still shaking’.sam golod, p. 74
When Natalie gives her a brief account of what has happened (a victim of a stabbing at the Tam Tam nightclub, requiring Consular assistance), Elizabeth Garrett’s response to her compatriot’s St Petersburg life is one of pleasant incomprehension; an attempt to apply rules and standards to a parallel universe which exists alongside her on the streets of St Petersburg but might as well be another world.
‘Dear, dear’, she tutted. ‘You must be careful who you mix with. Maybe you ought to register, that way we can let your family know if something happens’. None of this was very helpful … though to be fair I don’t think there was anything that she could have done. There didn’t seem to be a connection between the opulence of The Astoria with its reproduction Louis Quatorze furniture and the back staircase of the Tam Tam.sam golod, pp. 74-75
Ah yes, registering your presence with the Embassy. I had forgotten that that was the expectation for UK visitors to Russia in those days.