Showing posts with label Martin Cruz Smith. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martin Cruz Smith. Show all posts

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.

14 March 2018

The Girl in the Lagoon: Martin Cruz Smith


Martin Cruz Smith made his bones with Gorky ParkI remember its jaw-dropping singularity, almost a science fiction conceit, where the oddness of the whole is captured by tilting everyday detail ninety degrees from square. It got its effects from accumulation. There was also a slight alteration of rhythm, a kind of stutter or hesitation to the language, the words careful and exact, but somehow dealt face-down, like a card trick. You were surprised when they were turned over, showing a jack when you expected an ace. It felt, you might say, a little Russian, an unfamiliar alphabet, a new terrain to navigate.

Of the next two Renko books, Polar Star was terrifically compelling, and Red Square, for my money, delivered the most satisfying finish, but in between Gorky Park and Polar Star came a standalone, Stallion Gate. The guy gets my vote for sheer audacity. Stallion Gate is about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. I've nibbled around the edges of this subject meself, and you can only go one of two ways, I think, either gnomic and allusive or full frontal. No half-measures. Smith takes the bet, all or nothing, and Stallion Gate is high-risk, spending the writer's own capital, not coasting on the interest. He almost recovers his investment. The book is just that - almost. You can make out the shadow it casts, and the signature of the wind scouring the sand, but it never quite fills its own sails.

There have been eight Arkady Renko thrillers in all, to date, and in between, three more novels without him. Rose, which came out in 1996, is to my mind very underrated, a Victorian historical Gothic (not at all pastiche), a steam engine of a book, a mechanical wonder, hissing and dripping with condensation, levers and armatures, drive shafts and metal fatigue, shaking the rails. Sort of a cross between John Buchan and Wilkie Collins. December 6th, from 2002, is a Tokyo spy story - the title gives that away - and a nice play on the gaijin as secret agent, first cousin to the Raj-boy Kim, echoes of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. I found it hugely entertaining.

Which brings us to the latest release, actually in 2016, The Girl from Venice. I'd call it a departure, or at least somewhat. It has the guileless and obstinate Martin Cruz Smith hero, marooned by his honor, and the ominously claustrophobic menace of the time period, the exhausted last gasp of Fascist Italy, the Americans clawing their way north, the Germans fighting a stubborn rearguard action. On the other hand, Cenzo, the lead, has an endearing sweetness to his nature, and to all intents, the book is at heart a romantic fable.

Magic realism isn't something you'd anticipate from this writer, and The Girl from Venice isn't, exactly. But there's an unexpected playfulness. I kept waiting for the darkness to swallow everybody up, and it doesn't happen. Yes, we definitely get some nasty, sinister people drifting in and out, and the girl Giulia is the last survivor of a Jewish family, lost to the fortunes of war. For all his clownishness, Il Duce has caused enormous human dislocation and suffering. You're not saddened in the least when the Red partisans catch up to him. This stuff happens, though, mostly off-stage. You don't get a lot of explicit. The heroics, too, are kind of muted and self-deprecating. like Cenzo himself. We know innocence is a casualty of war, and all too many innocents, but in this telling, basta.


POSTSCRIPT

I met Bill Smith at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe, a few years back. He was getting over some grievous upper respiratory crud, his voice playing hide-and-seek, but he was extremely game and gracious. He did a long Q&A (the most recent book was Three Stations), and soldiered through with humor and patience. He gave good weight.

We talked briefly the next day, about the end of the Cold War, mostly, and when at one point I mentioned having been a Russian intelligence linguist, he admitted he didn't really speak much Russian. I think my jaw did literally drop. Bill ducked his head and smiled. He'd always used a wingman, he said, the better to get it right.

Red Square turns on a mistranslation from English to Russian, or more specifically, a misunderstanding by an American whose idiomatic Russian is almost but not quite native. "Square," a public space, vice "square," the geometric shape, but in Russian usage, two different words, ploshchad' for the place, kvadrat for the other.

Where did Bill Smith, whose command of Russian isn't what it might be, happen across the distinction? Perhaps it was luck, reaching out to pluck at his sleeve like an old Baba Yaga on the Moscow subway platform, trying to sell books of matches or locks of Stalin's hair.