Tuesday 11 January 2011

'the less you know, the better you sleep.'

by A.D. Miller

Snowdrop. 1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendant flower. 2. Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.

I couldn't have chosen a better moment to begin reading this debut novel, just as snow began to fall outside and cover buildings, pavements and trees in that always beautiful blanket of white. Snow has the ability to make almost any landscape look beautiful and the way in which it can hide something filthy or rotten is entirely appropriate whilst reading this story of corruption, deceit and false impressions. It is told by lawyer Nick, written as a kind of confession to his fiancee about his time in Russia, a time he has refused to speak about until the pressure of tying the knot makes it something he must share.

Perhaps it's because we're only three months away from 'the big day', and that somehow seems a sort of reckoning. I feel like I need to tell someone about Russia, even if it hurts. Also that probably you should know, since we're going to make promises to each other, and maybe even keep them.

The last part of that last sentence sounds like a man wearied by an experience, a man who knows not to trust a promise. Quite what his secret is will be revealed slowly but the book begins with the discovery of a body, the snowdrop of the title, and so we know from the beginning that the stakes will be high. Miller previously worked as the Russian correspondent for The Economist so this novel is filled with closely observed detail and seems to reflect accurately (presumably) the life of those professionals who work away from native lands and cannot help but absorb something of the environment the live in. Nick of course sees himself as above all that, a far more concerned and noble creature than the other expat lawyers -

'...who generally only stayed for two or three oblivious years, then retreated to service more reputable crooks in London or New York, sometimes as a partner in Shyster & Shyster or wherever, taking with them a handy offshore bank balance and some tits-and-Kalashnikov Wild East stories to console their live-long commutes.'

With a moralistic central character immersed in a foreign culture it's impossible not to think of Graham Greene and Miller is well aware of that, even creating for Nick a journalist friend, Steve, who has 'been trying to avoid England and himself for so long and in so many far-out places...that by the time I met him he had become one of those lost foreign correspondents that you read about in Graham Greene, a citizen of the republic of cynicism.' Steve has been working in country a lot longer than Nick and his journalistic experience has taught him at least one fundamental truth.

'In Russia there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.'

This is crucial because the story Nick has to tell could be all of the above but at its heart, just as his time-worn friend warned, it is a crime story. It begins with a harmless enough meeting on the metro, a shared glance with a woman that will set the chain of events in motion but it also relies on complicity and another piece of advice from his friend - 'You need to lose your moral bearings. Otherwise you're done for.' It is partly this unmooring that creates a central character who seems to almost drift into calamity and I'll be honest and say that this raised a couple of weaknesses for me, one of credulity and one of passivity. There were moments when I really wondered whether a man of intelligence would sleepwalk into such poor lapses or suspensions of judgement, particularly in regard to the plot connected with his work (we all know that affairs of the heart are far more likely to go awry!). That passivity makes for a central character who lacks verve and engagement on the whole, not a devastating problem for some readers perhaps, but enough to prevent this reader (who always had an inkling of what would happen) from ever getting really excited about what was unfolding. Knowing where the plot might be going isn't a disaster, a psychological thriller is far more about the internal workings of course, but that passivity I mentioned meant that I wasn't as gripped by it as I might have been.

The character of Tatiana Vladimirovna does provide some interest. The 'aunt' of Nick's female friend, he will act as her legal representative in a property swap (a curious quirk of Russian property ownership sees properties swapped rather than bought and sold, I could go into detail after reading this book but I sense you don't want me too) that will take her out of the city centre. She comes from a generation for whom the mere mention of the word Leningrad is enough to bring conversation to a standstill and bring back memories of starvation during the lengthy siege of World War Two.

'But then people became animals, do you understand? And all other animals were food. We had a dog, he was only a little dog, and we hid him from the other people. But he died anyway, and in the end we ate him ourselves. It would have been better to eat him when he was fat!...Books were for burning. Dogs were for eating. Horse were for eating, sometimes when they were still alive. They fell down in the street and people ran with knives. Boots and shoes were for making soup.'

Endowed with that famously grim Russian sense of humour Vladimirovna is a stoical presence, perhaps as dimly aware of the deception that she is part of as Nick is, in his own way. Any sense that this property swap is less than fair is roundly ignored by all concerned so that Nick can feel as if it were all 'inevitable, almost natural.' Like the moral descents found in Greene this novel is about the journey Nick makes from the lofty certitude of his early days in Russia to the pre-nuptial confession that we are reading. The journey in which a man discovers exactly what he is capable of.

The kind of person I never knew I could be until I came to Russia. But I could be, and I was.
That's what I learned when my last Russian winter thawed. The lesson wasn't about Russia. It never is, I don't think, when a relationship ends. It isn't your lover that you learn about. You learn about yourself.
I was the man on the other side of the door. My snowdrop was me.


Anonymous,  11 January 2011 at 07:38  

I've seen some mixed reviews about this book, but am pleased you enjoyed it as it is in my reading pile. I love books set in Russia and the G.Greene-ness of the situation of an Englishman abroad makes it sound more attractive.

William Rycroft 11 January 2011 at 12:12  

I did enjoy it Annabel but with my own mixed feelings to go with those reviews. I think you'll enjoy it for the reasons you've mentioned and it's also written with an ease that comes from first-hand knowledge so that the pages fly by. Easier at least than Moby-Dick which I've just seen on Savidge Reads is your first read of the year. Blimey, what a way to start 2011! Stick with it, there are tough moments but it's a wonderful book well deserving of its classic status.

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