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.
Charles Cumming is at the forefront of contemporary British thriller writers, and is on a bit of a roll at the moment. JUDAS 62 is his eleventh novel. The majority of these —with The Trinity Six being one of three exceptions— are not really Russia-in-fiction territory. But JUDAS 62 most definitely is.
‘Big bad Russia’ is back as the main enemy, and a large part of JUDAS 62 is set in the Russian city of Voronezh in 1993.
Charlotte Hobson’s account of her year as a Russian language student in Voronezh in 1991-92 is Russia in Fiction’s favourite memoir about Russia. Some time in the next few months, we will add a post here about other memoirs, but this one deserves a post all of its own.
Of course Black Earth City does not really belong on the Russia in Fiction blog, as it is not fiction; hence this post’s appearance in the ‘Editorials et al’ section and the fact that we are not counting the memoir in our path to reviewing one hundred books that portray Russia in fiction.
Here at the Russia in Fiction blog, we are interested in how Russia is portrayed in English-language fiction. Whether that fiction is any good comes into the reviewing too of course, but the tropes and plot devices and imagery and assumptions of a remaindered thriller can still fascinate as insights into popular perceptions of Russia at any given time.
James Steel’s December serves as a great example for taking the ‘how Russia is seen’ temperature. From title and front cover blurb, at the end of this century’s first decade, that temperature is low.
If Only You Knew sees a life transformed as another life dies. Its place and time —Moscow in the year of the Soviet collapse— serves as metaphor for the developing story.
Eva and Rob arrive in a city that is recognisably Soviet in its restrictive and proscriptive milieu. By the novel’s end, intimations of emerging life in all its chaotic and elemental potential are visible on the streets of Russia’s capital.
Sophia Creswell’s Sam Golod (1996) is one of those works written by English writers who spent time in Russia during the extraordinary 1990s and sought to describe in prose those searingly memorable years.