Inspector Arkady Renko is back on home turf in Moscow's heart. Pacey & compact return to a Russian Federation that is strikingly different each ti...moreInspector Arkady Renko is back on home turf in Moscow's heart. Pacey & compact return to a Russian Federation that is strikingly different each time we go back. Occasional conflicted moments with various mcguffins and subplots, and obviously calibrated for the silver screen, but all in all a great ride. (less)
That propensity of lifting every problem from the plane of the understandable by means of some sort of mystic expression is very Russian.
It almost seems that Conrad needs the fecundity of the South Seas, or of the African Interior, to counterbalance his methods, his approach. Here in the awfully civilized central European capitals we may find him unusually soap-operatic and slightly overdone. Or maybe it is so close to home for the writer, Polish and born in the Ukraine, that every last semi-loyalty must be analyzed and parsed into oblivion.
It is fairly safe to say at this point that Conrad was looking to present his view of the opposite of pan-Russianism, whether red or white, or at least to point to the cracks in the foundation. In 1911 Russia and adjacent Europe were so wracked by revolutionary fervor and anarchist violence that the rather conservative author may have wanted to counter the onrush of history as he saw it. That the orphaned Conrad's father was a patriotic Pole who flaunted the authority of Russian hegemony, that it was an era when the world was on the brink, would both have been influential.
There is so much here to have loved that it's hard to call it what it seems, though. The era; the scrubby, grandiose/atrocious views we get of the Russian capital of the Czars, contrasted with the sparkling miniature-utopia of Geneva, all tiny parks, promenades and arched bridges ... provide an atmosphere for a political spy tragedy that shouldn't have missed. It does miss, though, and there is some evidence that Conrad was looking to settle certain scores with his novel that set the whole project into the 'contrivance' category. But not right away.
As often with Conrad, locale, character and exposition on-the-fly are frontloaded and forced into the narrative mix quite early in the story; much as a modern film will mesh those elements directly into the first few shots, rather than languish in establishing shots or chit-chat from minor characters to set the stage. We're in the midst of it, right away, rather than waiting for a staged introduction. And even the 'Narrator' here is something of a ploy, as he too will come to be a major player, very early in the second act.
Speech has been given to us for the purpose of concealing our thoughts...
My impression is that it is part of the plan that some details will get lost in the rush, perhaps just mislaid, and some uncertainties will continue further into the mix, as we reach the inner frames of the story. All the better to play when required, on inner storylines when and where the emphasis is needed, rather than as mere introduction. Often this works as a stunning reverberation in a Conrad novel, but sometimes not, as in Under Western Eyes. The risk is a bit like telling a restrained and methodical story of a woman eating an apple, and then reframing it by saying she is in the garden of eden, and named Eve.
Even in ranting against the rebels, the author is bloodthirsty in his condemnation the empire. Even in looking to upset the mystic, pan-Slavic logic of revolution, Conrad wants to indict not the ideals but the weaknesses of the personality types to whom a broad revolution will appeal. And he has no shortage of strange characters to present.
As usual with Conrad, we are immersed here within multiple frames of a narrative plan that rearranges, slightly, the stream of events we are to witness. Frames of various perspectives overlay the minimal action, while the emphasis is left to fall on the viewpoint, the spin, at any given point. Almost the entire novel is accomplished in terms of the "walk & talk", where much is described by characters exchanging their take on the proceedings, while walking through Geneva (much beloved of television copshow writers, who need these wordy strolls to further their under-budgeted plots). And here (as with Henry James, often enough) the broth is beautiful but the soup is overcooked.
Having said that, there are interesting resonances at hand, in Conrad's tale of a self-doubting and panicky student fallen into the embrace of international intrigue. An excruciating sequence of agonized reversals draws our anti-hero along the path: miscalculation somehow leads to being spared by luck, which leads to overconfidence and self-regard that is not matched by character; horribly bad luck and self-loathing await, and the author is not kind to his central character. One of the scores Conrad wants to settle is surely with the ghost of Dostoevsky.
Protagonist and unwilling co-collaborator Razumov is well beyond his depth by the first page of the book, and once led to the circle of spies in Geneva he becomes the plaything of the era's worst influences, the fool of history. The operatic character-types of the spies of Geneva are straight out of Maltese Falcon or, perhaps, Dante. Dark gargoyles look down over all of the proceedings, but even more diabolical ones lie in wait, behind the locked doors of the conspirators. (less)
There were fourteen morgues in Moscow, some as clean as model kitchens, others abattoirs with carts of bloody saws and chisels. Arkady fell into a kind of fugue state, seeing with a cold professional eye, being there and not there.
This was more of an "it-was-ok" spliced with but-I-liked-it-sort-of. This must be the tenth Martin Cruz Smith I've read since Gorky Park way back in the eighties, you'd think things would have improved more noticeably in thirty years, but well, there you go. Somehow not much.
Nothing wrong with MCS's characters, though the lead Investigator is a bit standard (pained, gruff, wounded, serial-scorned by women, misunderstood by allies on the force)... but we've been with him for many years now. He's the Oscar Madison of maverick Russian police inspectors and he's had it with this, seriously.
Generally, the main characters are solid and the ones added for this episode are reasonably memorable without being parodies of suspense villains (which in other MCS books they can be). The romance angle is fairly adult and not wince-inducing; the woman is a touch saintly and too simultaneously over-it-all to add up, but the lead Investigator is so pathetic we'll take anyone short of a broom-riding Delilah. (Broom Riding Delilahs will kindly stow their brooms in the upright storage compartment before boarding. He'll have them too.) There's a teenage kid and he's not adorably or achingly cute. Even the kid has a babe and she's not a one-dimensional plot-propper-upper. Nobody gets gratuitously raped. So far so good.
MCS is always on pretty safe ground with his atmosphere and locales, as they are always on the Ex-Soviet World Tour map, strange, unique, and contradictory places left behind by the failed empire. All good there, certainly.
Plotting is well, reasonable. Not tight; but the current model in suspense/mystery/espionage/you-name-it is that "tight" is relative and not a dealbreaker. For me, it may not be a dealbreaker, but it certainly leans on that mutual author-reader deal pretty hard. "Nice little deal you got here, shame if anything were to happen to it, huh, chum?"
The actual MADDENING thing here is that some of the situations and sequences (I'd describe them if there were more here to discuss; there isn't) are so good and so neatly constructed that the flat-lining sections just let the air out. Did MCS just hand in the notes from his private island retreat and let the interns get on with it ? Or maybe there is no Martin Cruz Thank You Very Much Smith and the books are the creation of alien private-island anchor-baby infiltrators?
CONTENT-PROVIDER anchorbaby infiltrators ? Am I hitting a nerve ? Okay, right, no.
Everyone who's read all the Renkos knows this; MCS really excels at certain situations, and then devolves to the standard plot points-- the glum interval while the detective broods, the inevitable beatdown, the turnabout and chase. The freaking chase, come on, it's 2014 do we need to end everything in the final-chase and stand-off that happened in the neanderthal days of crime/suspense/whatever-they-called-it-then ?