Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Tsarist Russia's Holmes: Inside the world of Erast Petrovich Fandorin

PUNJAB NEWS LINE | July 31, 2022 08:10 PM

The course of human history can be quite irreversible, whether we like it or not. Some may hanker for a golden past of homogeneity and tradition (usually imagined), but at best, they can only replicate its essence -- and in part only, for it is impossible to recreate conditions of even a year back, leave alone centuries. Take Tsarist Russia, for example.

It may be argued that Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is as autocratic, expansionist, and opaque as Imperial Russia under the Romanovs, but there have been important changes down the years. This was not at least due to the Bolsheviks, who wiped out the 'ancien regime' and they were pretty thorough. Time and changing circumstances and political, social, economic, and technological norms did the rest.

Rhe Russia of the Tsars, of the opulent aristocracy, the unbounded despotism, the wide social and economic gulf, which fuelled fatalism, nihilism, and an unquenchable revolutionary fervour manifesting itself in a spate of assassinations, bombings, and conspiracies, can now only be found in the annals of history.

Yet, human ingenuity has ensured another way to relive the past -- through the medium of historical fiction.

A flavour of Tsarist Russia can be found in the period's abundant literature -- the Golden Age of Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, down on to Count Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak, but there are many writers -- both Russian and non-Russian -- who have also dealt engagingly with the period, in all genres, especially in historical detective fiction.

Prominent among the Russian writers is the Soviet/Russian language expert of Georgian descent, Grigori Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, aka Boris Akunin, creator of the Fandorin series of historical detective fiction.

Detective fiction had always been a favourite of Russian readers in all periods -- Sherlock Holmes was most popular -- but in the turmoil of the post-Soviet period, it descended into typically pulp -- full of sex and gore, yet still popular. Chkhartishvili's wife was also an aficionado of these, but had to read them surreptitiously.

It was a desire to give a quality boost to the detective genre and write books that no one would be chary of, reading that inspired him, otherwise a Japanese language and culture expert, to turn his hand to it.

Chkhartishvili -- a name quite unpronounceable for the English reader -- chose the pen name Akunin (Japanese for 'great evil man' but modified by the author to mean a 'bad man who makes his own rules') for the series, which includes 13 full-length books, two collections of short stories, and one stage play spanning nearly five decades, from the last quarter of the 19th century to the Russian Revolution and the consequent Civil War.

The eloquent writing (which comes out well in the translations too), the singular characters, the intelligent and intricately plotted mysteries, and host of references to Russian history and literature, would have made the series a surefire winner in any case, but Akunin went one step further. Each of the 16 books pays homage to one particular sub-set of the detective mystery genre -- which he estimated at the same number -- terrorist conspiracy, spy hunt, closed circle murder, serial killer, government conspiracy, political crime, and the like.

Before we see some of the oeuvre, let's look at our hero -- Erast Petrovich Fandorin. We first meet him in "Azazel/The Winter Queen" (1998), when he is a junior -- yet enterprising and energetic -- operative in the Moscow CID. We learn he is of an affluent-turned-impoverished background, with his father having done well during the railroad boom and then losing everything in the banking boom, leading him to quit the world.

Fandorin, however, is born lucky, and suspects it's fate's way of compensating for his father's very bad luck. He is handsome (save for the hair at his temples going grey at the end of the first book, after its sudden, shocking denouement), and always fashionably turned-out and attired.

On the other hand, he has a tendency to stutter (caused by the same reason as why his temples go grey) but this disappears in the critical moments, unnerving those he is talking with, or when he is very angry. And then, he does not have a particular catchphrase, but instead, has the habit of listing his deductions, as "that's one, that's two and that's three". Later, he also acquires the habit of clicking on a jade rosary while thinking or agitated.

"The Winter Queen" is about how his dogged investigation of a young Moscow playboy leads to an unearthing of a diabolical conspiracy -- and brings him great personal tragedy.

"The Turkish Gambit" (1998, English 2005) has Fandorin, still overwrought from the loss he suffered at the end of Book No. 1, enlisting as a volunteer in Bulgaria during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877, but getting drawn into a counterintelligence operation to stop an effective Turkish spy.

"Murder on the Leviathan" (1998; English 2004), set in 1877, is a pure mystery beginning with the gruesome murder of an English lord, seven of his servants and two children of servants in Paris -- all bludgeoned with an ancient Indian idol.

One clue is found from the spot, showing the perpetrator is a first-class passenger on a ship sailing to Calcutta. A bombastic French policeman (aptly named Gauche) boards the ship and stumbles upon a rich range of suspects -- a scatterbrained English aristocrat, the pregnant wife of a Swiss banker, a mysterious Japanese man, a spendthrift English spinster, an expert in Indian antiquities and a young Russian en route to a diplomatic post in Japan.

The last, who is our hero, debunks the inept policeman's theories of the murderer's identity and is forced to find the killer himself -- when the policeman and some others join the list of victims. The ending is not what you might expect.

The next "The Death of Achilles" (1998; English 2005) has Fandorin back in Moscow from his Japan stint and he he gets embroiled in investigating the death of a celebrated general, found dead in his hotel room, but with some foul play suspected -- identifying the sub-genre will be a spoiler.

What he did in Japan and what happened to him only comes to be known in the latter part of Book 10, the very dark "The Diamond Chariot" (2003; English 2011).

Among the rest of the series, political themes show up in "The State Counsellor" (1999; English 2008), which is one of the best expositions of revolutionary activity in pre-1917 Russia and the murky atmosphere in which they operated; "The Coronation" (2000, English 2009), related to the accession of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, lays bare his weaknesses that would doom him, his family and dynasty around two decades hence; "Black City" (2012; English 2018) again brings in the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries and ends a bit tragically too, as does "Not Saying Goodbye" (2018; English 2020), which brings the series to an end literally with a bang.

Pure crime is the focus of "Special Assignments" (1999), basically two novellas about a clever gang of conmen and Jack the Ripper in Moscow, "She Lover of Death" (2001; English 2009) and "He Lover of Death" (2001; English 2010), both intertwined and influenced by Charles Dickens, and "All the World's a Stage" (2009; English 2018), with its tip to "The Phantom of the Opera", is perhaps the only one which ends happily for our hero.

What is inexplicable is that the two collections of short stories and novellas -- "The Jade Rosary" (2006) and "Planet Water" (2015), which fill gaps in his life, as well as his adventures in the US and an encounter with Sherlock Holmes -- have never been translated into English. We can just hope that this shortcoming will be rectified soon.

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