Archive for the ‘Boris Akunin’ Category

He Lover of Death

November 14, 2010

I have already confessed myself to be an admirer of Boris Akunin’s highly entertaining Erast Fandorin series, of which He Lover of Death is the tenth volume to be translated into English. As has often been the case of late, Fandorin himself initially takes a back seat as we become acquainted with the focus of our tale, an orphan who quickly becomes, Oliver Twist style, involved with a gang of petty criminals known as Senka. The action takes place in Khitrovka, an area of Moscow that seems unlikely to have featured on any nineteenth century tourist itinerary. Khitrovka is largely in the control of criminal gangs, which apparently model themselves on suites of playing cards, with a King, a Queen, a Jack, and so on:

“The ace was like the tsar of bandits, there was one for all Moscow.”

Two particular kings, the Prince and the Ghoul, are currently rivals for the recently vacated role of Ace. Senka attaches himself to the Prince’s gang via an encounter with his queen, the Death of the title, so called because she seems to call death down upon her lovers. Despite this, almost any man who lays eyes on her is immediately entranced, including Senka:

“He could feel her looking him up and down, and he desperately wanted to take a look at her from close up, but he was afraid – even without looking at her he was feeling hot one minute and cold the next.”

Even Fandorin cannot resist her charms, but, regarding herself as cursed, she has decided only to allow evil men to love her – her refusal to pay Senka any notice reflects not only his youth but the kernel of goodness inside him that develops over the course of the novel.

While Senka does not narrate the novel, the narrative voice is clearly his. It seems likely that this has been the most difficult of Akunin’s novels for his regular translator Andrew Broomfield (though Leviathan required six different voices). Broomfield peppers the narrative with dated slang in an attempt to reproduce Senka’s accent. The first page alone has: chewing the fat; bint; swanky; and fancy broad, among others. Similarly we see events from Senka’s viewpoint: Masa is “a Chinee or some kind of Turkestani” (he’s Japanese); Fandorin is, on first acquaintance, “the dandy”, and later Mr Nameless. Not everything works. Frequent references to “collidors” I took to be a misprint of Franzen like proportions until Senka begins to take lessons to improve himself:

“No, Semyon Trofimovich, in cultured society they don’t say collider, it should be corridor.”

Though not on this occasion, Senka’s perspective does much to add humour to the narrative. The various disguises Fandorin convinces him to wear – beggar, Jewish imbecile, gangster’s moll – are particularly amusing. His youth and ignorance allow the reader’s understanding to develop alongside: he becomes a Watson like figure to Fandorin’s Holmes as he tries to keep up with an intelligence that is always one step ahead, for example when he thinks he can read letters between Fandorin and Death undetected:

“There was no address on the envelope, and it wasn’t even glued shut. ‘That is so you will n-not have to waste any time b-buying a new one,’ Mr Nameless explained. ‘You’ll read it anyway.’ “

The plot is driven by a hidden store of silver rods, once used to mint coins. The original discoverer of the rods is murdered, leaving Senka as the only person who knows where they are. When he begins to sell them, those around him also meet with rather gruesome ends one by one. As the majority of characters are killers, there is no shortage of suspects. Fandorin (and Akunin) resolves matters through a Poirot-like gathering of all them all, though in a cellar rather than a drawing room. This is not simply a dramatic way to reveal the killer, but a method of dealing with the problem that all the suspects are in fact, killers, and the discovery of which one is responsible for these particular deaths will not absolve the others. Suffice to say that justice is achieved with some panache. If you are not already enjoying these adventures, then you should be.

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She Lover of Death

May 31, 2010

When Boris Akunin began the adventures of Erast Fandorin with The Winter Queen, he set out quite deliberately to write each novel in a different style. The second, Turkish Gambit, was an Ian Flemingesque spy story; the third, Leviathan, owed much to Agatha Christie. In speaking about his work he is astonishingly systematic: the Sister Pelagia novels (which have also been translated into English) are more ‘literary’ than Erast Fandorin, the Nicholas Fandorin novels less so. He has also undertaken a project to write a series of novels each of a different genre.

Admiration of this playfulness is probably a prerequisite of enjoyment. The reader should not expect a story in which we can safely identify with our protagonist until the mystery is solved. Fandorin does not even appear until we are more than seventy pages in, and then is only identified by the reader’s knowledge from previous volumes of his “slight stammer”, the “squat, solidly built Oriental” who follows him, and his Holmesian manner of deduction:

“You walked in without ringing or kn-knocking. So you must have come to see someone you know. That is one. You see strangers here but you don’t ask after the occupant of the flat. So you already know that he is dead. That is two…”

Instead the centre of the narrative is a young girl, Masha Miranova, newly arrived in Moscow from the country in pursuit of her urban and (so she thinks) urbane lover, ‘Harlequin’. This is well-judged as it allows Akunin to present the city to us with all the detail of a new-comer’s eye. Also, we can be amused by Masha’s attempts to create a new personality for herself, often explicitly rewriting her diary:

“But, no, I mustn’t write like that…I am not writing for myself, but for art.”

Her tastes and attitudes are also changed to suit:

“She lounged on the downy mattress for a while, phoned down to the ground floor to have coffee sent up, and in celebration of her new sophisticated life, drank it without cream or sugar. It was bitter and unpalatable, but it was bohemian.”

Masha’s narrative is, however, not the only one: we also have a series of newspaper stories and the letters of a reluctant police informer. All three narrators are members of a suicide club in which they enrol under pseudonyms, making it initially unclear which members they are and adding to the general air of mystery. Playful allusions to Russian literature are common in Akunin’s work, and it seems likely that he intends to satirise the many despairing protagonists, “half in love with easeful Death”, that populate its pages. In fact, I would go further and suggests he takes pleasure in killing so many of them off, instead of allowing them to endlessly threaten their end. Of course, it soon turns out that not all of the deaths are suicide, and those that are have been subject to unnatural levels of encouragement.

She Lover of Death is more humorous (despite its dark subject matter) than many of the previous adventures, and features Fandorin largely in silhouette. It does, however, deliver one of the most tense and thrilling final chapters. Akunin claims he saw a gap in the Russian market: entertainment for educated readers. And that is exactly what these novels are.