Saturday, May 23, 2009

Arkadya: Place in WOLVES EAT DOGS

(reflection on WOLVES EAT DOGS, a novel in a series featuring detective Arkady Renko by Martin Cruz Smith. See my reflection on STALIN’S GHOST elsewhere in this blog.)

Place, not plot, makes this novel. The basic story is uncomplicated: the victim and his associate did something that angered someone else enough to wreak revenge, and the detective travels to the site of the second murder looking for that something and that someone. But the author enriches this novel through places that are both credible and surreal.

Series detective Arkady Renko explores these places. He questions the people he meets, he sometimes sympathizes, but he remains untouched. Oh, sure, in this novel, he’s beaten with hockey sticks, shot at, besotted with peasant alcohol called samogon, bedded by a radioactive beauty, and glared at by an intensely taciturn eleven – year old boy who needs a father. But Renko holds all of these people at arm’s length, either mistrusting or afraid that he himself can only bring unhappiness to the ones who want to be close to him.

WOLVES EAT DOGS begins in one memorable place, a penthouse that epitomizes “the New Russia.” Its owner, the founder of a security corporation called, fittingly, NovoRus, is the novel’s first victim. His home is trendy, all white and glass and spaciousness, high above the gritty Moscow street. It bristles with electronic security devices because the new Russian oligarchs can’t rise high enough to escape the underworld foundations of their wealth.

The scene shifts when another NovoRus executive is found far from Moscow in the Ukraine, throat slit, in the radioactive “Zone” surrounding Chernobyl nuclear reactor number four that spewed radioactive iodine dust into the world’s atmosphere around 1986. In Smith’s telling, it’s “a funhouse mirror world” (106) of monumental Soviet-era structures lining vast uninhabited town squares, huts where aged peasants raise livestock on radioactive feed, “hot zones” where looters can evade police to emerge who – knows – where, and a lake by the power plant where giant mutated catfish swim. The woods, encroaching on abandoned towns, are full of hedgehogs that have lost their fear of humans, and wolves that eat the guard dogs. “And where will we be when all the dogs are gone?” asks one resident of the Zone. “It will be the end of civilization” (168).

Smith mythologizes his Zone. One character provides historical context: “It’s a nice place. Full of murdered Poles, Jews, Reds and Whites, not to mention the victims starved to death by Stalin or hung by the Germans, but still nice” (269). The physicist named Alex tells the story of Chernobyl as “Russian stand – up comedy” (179), emblematic of the entire Soviet era, a story about self-interested bureaucrats, state secrecy that kept technicians from knowing the dangerous limits of the reactor, the government’s determination to go forward with a May Day parade in the open fallout, and the cover – up that spread radioactive death to dozens, thousands, or millions – depending on whether you accept official numbers or not. “When does this start to become funny?” his wife asks.

Smith uses a Russian folk tale as an allegory for the whole novel and all of Russian history. Early in the book, that eleven – year – old boy becomes animated (for once) as he reads aloud fairy tales about the witch Baba Yaga, who had “steel teeth” to eat her prisoners and a fence around her hut “festooned with skulls.” Listening as he drives the boy through Moscow, Renko sees
Moscow University, one of Stalin’s skyscrapers, built by convict labor in such a fever for higher learning and at such a wholesale cost of life that bodies were said to have been left entombed. That was a fairy tale he could keep to himself, Arkady thought. (17)
Later, talking to the boy via cell phone outside the derelict nuclear plant, Renko says,
I met Baba Yaga. In fact, I’m outside her house right now. I can’t say whether her fence is made of bones, but she definitely has steel teeth. …In her pond she has a sea serpent as big as a whale, with long whiskers…. I didn’t see her magic comb… but I did see an orchard of poisonous fruit. All the houses around are burned and full of ghosts. (177)

Through another character, dying of radiation sickness, Smith draws parallels between this strange land and the modern world:

History moves in funny ways, right? We’ve gone through evolution, now we’re going through de-evolution. Everything is breaking down. No borders, no boundaries. No limits, no treaties. Suicide bombers, kids with guns. AIDS, Ebola, mad cow. It’s all breaking down, and I’m breaking down with it. I’m bleeding internally. No platelets. No stomach lining. Infected. (265)
Smith populates his world with some memorable characters. There are the Woropay brothers who roam the zone on in-line skates and Hockey gear brandishing sticks and guns. There’s Eva, doctor and cancer-scarred “Mother Theresa” of the Zone who once had a “radiant future” (237), before the Chernobyl accident. Her sudden and intense affair with Arkady complicates his relationship to his guide Alex, who also happens to be Eva's husband. He's the one who points out that Arkady is like those insouciant hedgehogs in a dark world of wolves – neatly tying every motif of this novel together.

But it’s place that makes the novel.

Crazy as Smith’s imagined world of the Zone is, rife as it is with Smith’s ironic black humor, it is authentic.

I know, because I’ve met an eyewitness, also named Arkady. Arkady Shvetsky was a nuclear engineer at the time of Chernobyl’s disaster. He told me how there was a sudden cloudburst in town, of the sort that brings people to their windows to marvel at the deluge. Strangely, this one didn’t abate in a few minutes, but continued for a weekend, and Arkady suspected that iodine in the clouds was the cause. Then he was summoned to Moscow for an urgent meeting of nuclear experts, only to be told at the meeting, “Never mind,” and to be sent home without explanation. Arkady told how he later learned of a friend of his who was approaching the entrance to the Chernobyl reactor number four for routine maintenance, unaware of what was transpiring. When radioactive air blew out the entrance, the friend and his co-workers were knocked down and instantly charred. Arkady removed his family to Israel, then to the US, where I taught his son Eugene. Arkady told how looters raided the abandoned towns in the Zone, selling contaminated furniture and electronics throughout the former Soviet Union.


W. Scott Smoot said...

I'm happy to print some corrections from Mr. Shvetsky himself:

"Just a few corrections, I wasn't summoned to Moscow, I was a regular engineer. And a few field engineers who performed tests on the Turbine-Generator #4 in that dramatic night didn't leave the turbine hall immediately because (as I was told) nobody ordered them to leave right away. I was told that they were told by passing by equipment operator to leave because something was going really wrong, but no details. And who knew details at that moment? The test engineers started to remove their test equipment and when they eventually were leaving the hall they were so sick and tired that they were not able to leave it immediately and because of it they got very big radiation doses."

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