Monday, November 14, 2011

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

Another good novel by Martin Cruz Smith. Read "Gorky Park" and "Nightwing" before. The novel begins with a homicide to which Arkady Renko arrives that is already being investigated by Nikolai Isaakov and Marat Urman. In parallel, Arkady finds himself assigned to a case of people claiming to see Stalin at a railway station. Both of them are connected because the sightings of Stalin are just a publicity stunt for a political party called "Russian Patriots" with Isaakov as their main candidate. The homicide on the other hand is Isaakov trying to wipe out references to his rather shady past in the military while serving in Chechenya.
Arkady's father was a General in the Army during Stalin's time. References to his father are not particularly affectionate and probably are the origins of Arkady's disillusionment with the Soviet system. Maybe that is also a reason why drifts towards Eva. Eva was a doctor who served during Chechenya and tended to both the Russians and the Chechens. The author creates an interesting twist with Eva being in Chechenya with none other than Isaakov as her guardian angel. So as the story unfolds, Eva resumes her affair with Isaakov and leaves Arkady to go to the city of Tver with Isaakov where he is campaigning for the upcoming elections.
The novel mixes a superb detective thriller with a cynical view of the state of Russia and its history. An interesting find is that the novel is entirely written as seen by Arkady but is not written in the first person. Another interesting fact is Arkady's coma at a later half of the novel is in keeping with similar happening to the main character in the author's other books like "Gorky Park" and "Nightwing". Almost as if the author wishes to use these as interludes for introspection.

The apartment house had been built for the party and military elite, who were proud of their address, although during Stalin's time it was also where most people were taken away at night never to be seen again for years , if ever. Residents had listened with dread for the knock on the door or even the ascent of the elevator. What Arkady found surprising was that even knowing the building was a chopping block, no one dared decline the honour of living in it.

Eva didn't need his ghosts, she had her own. She had been a schoolgirl in Kiev, marching in the May Day parade four days after the meltdown at the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl because the authorities had assured the public that the situation was under control. A hundred thousand children walked into an invisible rain of plutonium, potassium, strontium, cessium-137. No one in the parade curled up and died on the spot, but she was labeled as a survivor, it being generally understood that survivors, especially women were barren and contagious.

What was the etiquette of cuckoldry? Should he leave them to their privacy, allowed himself to be chased out of his own bivouac? It wasn't as if he and Eva were married. It was clear that she could act as if they were lovers, and from time to time, banter cheerfully enough to raise his hopes, as least until tonight, but the performances took more effort all the time. It was rare that their work shifts coincided because she scheduled her hours more to avoid Arkady that to see him. Betrayal was exhausting, weighing every word with double meaning. Even when they made love he would spend the rest of the night examining everything Eva had said or done, watching her as if she was going to slip away and watching every word he said so as not to jar the mutually constructed house of cards. It had collapsed now, of course.

"The army is everything!" Arkady's father used to say until he was denied the field marshall's baton, then it was "The army is shit," Arkady wished he had such clarity of vision.

There were two approaches: attach Isaakov or pursue Eva. Both were shameless but in different ways. Since he didn't have the evidence or the authority to go after the detective in any official manner, he would have to provoke Isaakov into a misstep. Or he could forget Isaakov and justice and concentrate on Eva. She had slept with another man? At his age that meant less and less. People had histories.
He could keep his dignity or her.
His choice.

"Everyone worshipped Nikolai."
"What about you?"
"Yes," she said.
Arkady felt his heart race with hers. Well, they were working at something both perverse and difficult, the killing of love. That could raise a sweat.

It occurred to Arkady that when he had so abruptly left Moscow for Tver, Zhenya may have felt abandoned. All the conversations on the phone about monsters may have been a boy hanging for an invitation that was never issued. Arkady hadn't even said when he was coming back. And when Zhenya came to Tver was he appreciated or treated like excess baggage? Valuable insights but a little late.

Snow settled. Snow settled on a hero at a gate in Sovietskaya Street, immobilized, still thinking of his next move. Snow settled on bones that had come out of hiding. It settled on Tanya and Russian brides. It settled on Sofia Andreyeva's panache.
He thought the doctor had it wrong about the miracle. The real miracle was that the people of Tver should wake to city transformed into something pure and white.
And for ghosts, they filled the street.

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