22 September 2021

The Siberian Dilemma


I’ve written here before about Martin Cruz Smith and his Arkady Renko stories.  I’ve liked his other novels - Stallion Gate is one of my favorites - but the Renko books are somehow qualitatively different.  They have a flavor of science fiction, almost, or alternative history.  They are a kind of alternative history, when you come down to it, or an alternative reality.



You take your phone off the hook and spin the dial (this is
Moscow, remember) to zero, and put a pencil in the hole to keep it there; there’s enough electrical interference to screw up the transmission from the tap on your line.  You take off your windshield wipers and put them in a paper bag under the front seat; otherwise, somebody will steal them.  Where is Red Square? the fluent but non-native speaker asks, but confuses the public space, ploshchad’, with the geometric shape, kvadrat, and throws everybody else into even greater confusion.  The ice sheet in Polar Star, the white light of the horizon line in The Siberian Dilemma, the dead zone around the containment facility in Wolves Eat Dogs; the physical environment is a hazard.  The psychic environment no less: the ghost of Stalin stalks the Metro, an old KGB enemy is found floating in Havana Bay, the crusading journalist Tatiana Petrovna is thrown out of a sixth-story window, and the verdict is suicide.  Renko is first cousin to Bernie Gunther, another more-or-less honest cop trying to keep his footing on a slippery slope.



Which brings us to “the Siberian dilemma.”  If the ice cracks underneath you, and you plunge into the frigid water of Lake Baikal, you can drown, or you can pull yourself out, and still wet, freeze to death immediately in the cold air.  So, which do you choose?  Fatalistic as Russians can be, the answer is that it’s better to do something, even if that something is equally doomed.



This would seem to define Renko’s character, character in the sense of destiny.  He’s nothing if not a stubborn bastard.  He survives any number of snares laid by the more politically savvy, yet they over-complicate things.  Renko isn’t devious
enough, actually.  He’s easily led, but not so easily led astray.  Somebody more sophisticated would fall victim to a sophisticated device.  Renko staggers across thin ice, but it carries his weight, and a trickster wouldn’t be so lucky.




The interesting thing about Renko is that while he’s by no means innocent in the ways of the world, he has a certain na├»ve optimism.  He himself would say that if you expect the worst of people, you’ll never be disappointed, but he keeps looking to be surprised by hope.  It’s a terrific internal tension, and it mirrors something in what we imagine to be the Russian national political identity, the reformers vice the careerists and opportunists.  Although the punch line hasn’t been written, we’d all like to imagine ourselves surprised by hope, and it’s not a Russian failing, alone.  Aspiration is a stubborn bastard.

3 comments:

  1. David, my favorite MCS novels were some of the earlier ones (Gorky Park, Stallion Gate, etc.). But I've read 'em all, and I've always liked Renko. I thought William Hurt did a pretty good job of playing Renko in GP, but he looked nothing like the guy I had in my mind when I read the book.

    Enjoyed the post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Martin Cruz Smith is a brilliant author - and his Renko novels certainly immerse me into his world, full throttle, no quibbling, just dive on in.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read the first couple of novels and loved Gorky Park, the book and the film. Back then, it was like getting a peek behind the iron curtain.

    ReplyDelete

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