Sunday, October 19, 2008

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

(reflection on Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith, a detective novel.)

Kept up late and awakened early by the effort of getting another school year off to a good start, I've been reading non-fiction articles here and there since August, and I've grown restless, yearning almost physically for a book that creates different world that I can return to at the end of the day, or immerse myself in on a weekend afternoon.

More than plot, more than appealing characters, this reader craves the sensation of being in a different world. It's not just descriptions that I need, but a rich texture, defined by that world's history, the outlook, the mood, and the language. To achieve all that requires that the action must be filtered through the moral vision of some central consciousness, just as Henry James said.

I've written elsewhere on this blog about how Raymond Chandler's novels are less like following a plot than they are like touring another world -- Chandler's L.A. -- and detective Marlowe is the vehicle. Chandler narrates in third person, but filters all through Marlowe's perceptions.

In the same way, novelist Martin Cruz Smith has taken me to Russia through detective Arkady Renko. I saw the movie made of Cruz's first Renko novel GORKY PARK back when it came out in the mid-80s, and I read a follow-up, POLAR STAR. I remember nothing of the plots behind those titles, but I remember Renko, decent, generally beat up by enemies and circumstances, and I remember the atmosphere on the ship Polar Star, literally dense with fog and grime and rust, filled with menace. Not a place I'd like to be, but a rich place to visit, especially as you're pulling for Renko to fight his way through.

STALIN'S GHOST conjures the new Russia, where the Stalinist past is truly being resurrected. The ghost story that hooks Renko and us into the plot actually fades away fairly early on, and I admit that I can't exactly explain what was behind the ghost's appearances. By mid-book, I'd forgotten which corpses perished in which circumstances. Even by the end, I was having trouble remembering which female character had lived with Renko, and which was someone he'd met more recently. That's due more to my erratic reading schedule than to the complexity of the story.

But what I won't forget is that texture. It's comprised of layers of snow, the sense of skeletons both real and metaphorical under every surface, ill-lit rooms, vodka, wealth and grimy poverty, and menacing hulks in black berets belonging to special forces OMON. There are some settings that stand out: the eerie old subway station where Stalin's ghost has appeared, the chess championship played under TV lights at a gaudy casino, and the spectacle of a chaotic dig of a mass grave -- with live land mines -- outside the town of Tver.

The plotline is direct: Arkady guesses that a certain OMON soldier named Isakov is behind a series of suspicious deaths, and he pursues Isakov to prove it. Everything else is embroidery: Arkady's lover has left him for Isakov, and Isakov is running a political campaign that appeals to "patriots" (i.e., those who idealize Stalin as the miracle-worker who saved Russia from the Nazis and enemies within).

There's a sub-plot: Arkady is also trying to locate Zhenya, a slight twelve-year-old chess prodigy, anti-social and on the run from his own abusive father. The two plots intersect when Zhenya finds Renko, and transfers his personal allegiance to Isakov.

Renko plods on, ridiculed for his integrity, mocked as a cuckold, and attacked by Isakov's partisans. What hurts most is when the boy Zhenya scorns him for his weakness, especially for not carrying a gun like the hero Isakov.

A couple of personal resonances for me. I visited Russia in 1977, and remember wandering the streets of Tver, then called Kalinin. In the mid-1980s, I had the great pleasure and challenge of dealing with a Ukrainian refugee from the Soviet Union, whom I could easily imagine doing what Zhenya does, in the same situation.

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