Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Holy Thief

William Ryan
The Holy Thief

Minotaur Books, 2011

In a normal working day, Captain of Moscow Militia Alexei Korolev goes to his office in the building at Petrovka, where the statue of Commissar Yagoda is removed and ready to be replaced with a statue of Yezhov. In Moscow, 1936, no one is protected from NKVD, even the investigators of the Criminal Investigation Division. Yesterday’s Stalin's loyal assistant Yagoda becomes an enemy of the people, and cleaning can hurt anyone. A colleague of Korolev ckracked jokes about Stalin, and now no one knows where the joker has gone, and the Korolev’s chief General Popov, responsible for his subordinates’s long tongue, may soon go to the camps as well.

Korolev is in good relations with the authorities; he does not talk much, reveals complex cases with unusual zeal, supports the party line and believes in God, which, of course, hides from everyone. When at the church a disfigured body of a young woman is found, Popov gives the case to his best detective. Murdered woman is a foreigner, and it interests chekists. The colonel of NKVD Gregorin does not take the case himself, but asks Korolev to report to him in detail. Gregorin also throws up to Korolev the information on the identity of the murdered: she was not only an American (with Russian roots), but also a nun. Soon after that the body of a Thief is found, killed and disfigured in the same way as the American nun. Korolev concluded that the two murders had a connection. Captain seeks help to Babel, the very same author of "Odessa Tales" and "Red Cavalry" who is close to the criminal world, to help him to establish the identity of the Thief who was murdered. Korolev will have to reveal a very tricky conspiracy and stay alive.

Ryan, a Londoner, who studied in Ireland, suddenly has written a successful book on the Moscow of the 30s. If the cover stood a Russian name, probably no one would have guessed that it’s written by an Englishman. Englishness of the novel only gives the charm to the book. If you do not take into account the interrogations in the basement of NKVD (because no one really knows what and how exactly was happening there), then the book has almost no factual errors (although I'm generally not an expert on the era). Several times not so young characters are called by their pet names and vice versa, young police officer is called by name and patronymic; camps are called the Zone, though, I think, this name of places of deprivation of liberty came later, but the rest looks all right. Heroes smoke papirosas, eat blinis, sometimes Ments are called Ments.

The British origin of the author affects humor side of the novel.Humor here is typically British. Only Korolev’s skirmish with neighbors in kommunalka and gatherings at Babel’s are very funny. Anyway, it is impossible not to smile (and I even laughed), reading the dialogue like this:

«Are you a football fan, Comrade? Spartak also?»

"I'm sorry, Comrade Starostin - Dinamo."

"No reason not to support them, they're a good team. I toured with some of them a few months back and a nicer bunch of lads you couldn't meet."

The real historical figures, such as Babel and Starostin, enhance the effect of humorous books. The novel, which, in general, in the opinion of the publisher was to show Russia choking with fear, produces such effect not due to the atmosphere of fear. Instead, William Ryan presents another surprise. His book is "The Master and Margarita", passed through the prism of Dostoevsky and the British surrealism. «The Holy Thief» is not about fear at all, but about how lonely a man becomes entangled in his life and can not find the exit. Fear all the time is inside’s feeling, not outside’s, but inside of Korolev there is no fear, only a confusion. Around the middle the book turns into a series of surreal episodes, so you finish it, with your mouth open. Meeting with the Thief Kolya, looking over all Moscow; Babel-cat-Behemoth; football fans’s brawls; interrogation in the basement of Lubyanka; the Bible under the mattress, reading "A Hero of Our Time"; a good chekist. All of this can not be reality; it’s a dream of unconscious Korolev. The fifth dream of Alexei Dmitrievich.

A very strange book.

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