MOSCOW BY NIGHT

Daniel Kalder

In summer 2004 Akashic books published Brooklyn Noir, an anthology of
crime stories set in New York’s most heavily populated borough. Although
initially intended as a one-off, the book was so successful that the publisher
was soon inundated with proposals from authors wanting to subject their own
cities to the same hard-boiled treatment. Six years later and locales as varied
as Los Angeles, Mexico City and Trinidad are now served by an Akashic ‘noir
fiction guide’- and with the top sellers clocking up sales of 20 000+, the
series shows no signs of slowing down.

The latest city to be given the noir treatment is Moscow. The book’s editors
Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen are literary agents based- curiously
enough- in Saint Petersburg (although Smirnova is originally from Moscow).
Writing in the introduction, they make their intent clear: ‘This anthology is an
attempt to turn the tourist Moscow of gingerbread and woodcuts, of glitz and
big money, inside out… to reveal its fetid womb and make sense of the
desolation that still reigns.” The entertaining phrase ‘fetid womb’ is even
more pungent in Russian as ‘Moskva’ (Moscow) is a feminine noun. But that’s
not all- according to the editors:  ‘…almost any place in Moscow longs to be
the setting for a story of crime and violence.’ Indeed, given the relentlessly
bleak news coverage of Moscow (political corruption, murdered journalists,
gangsters, lunatic serial killers etc), it’s surprising that such an anthology has
not been attempted already.

For this there is a surprisingly simple explanation: noir does not exist as a
popular genre in Russian fiction, in spite of the fact that Rodion Raskolnikov
buried an axe in the old widow’s head long before Raymond Chandler was
even a glimmer in his pappy’s eye. Goumen explains this absence as a result
of cultural restrictions during the soviet era: ‘In the postwar period the
demand was for…uplifting films and fiction, while images of a dark reality
could not be published.’ This changed during perestroika, but even then the
cultural situation in Russia was simply too chaotic for the genre to take root:  
“…ethical and aesthetical expectations were shifting so rapidly and
drastically that the noir genre could not form as a literary trend…Besides with
the translations of big classic names the market was flooded with down
market trash titles, and with no experience and criteria to apply readers
would deny that noir… could be of a literary quality.’

Such is the dilemma for today’s budding Russian Elmore Leonards– there’s
no shortage of inspiration but there simply isn’t an audience for the style of
pop/literary fusion that sells so well in America and Europe. When it comes to
crime, the Russian reader prefers classics such as Agatha Christie, or light
hearted narratives such as the multi-million selling ‘ironic detective’ series by
Daria Dontosva. The culturally arch Russian intelligentsia meanwhile remain
wedded to strict notions of high and low culture. Indeed, Boris Akunin’s
master stroke in creating his post-modern historical detective Erast Fandorin
was to make the murder story intellectually respectable and thus reach an
audience hitherto embarrassed to admit to enjoying crime stories. The
result? Sales of 18 million at home and abroad.

What hope then for an English language collection of writing by Russians in
a genre that (in their culture anyway) doesn’t exist? Well, in spite of this
disadvantage Goumen and Smirnova have not struggled to find authors
eager to display the dazzling cruelty of contemporary Moscow in all its foul
detail, revealing in the process what a distinctly Russian noir is or could
become. Some stories take place in the historic centre; others in train
stations; others in soul-crushing suburbs erected in the 60s and 70s. A
handy map is included. We meet prostitutes, hit men, cops, art dealers, burnt-
out lecturers, students, compulsive masturbators, billionaires, all of whom are
up to their ears in evil. Conspicuous by its absence as a locale is Bitsevsky
Park in Moscow’s south west where between 1992 and 2006 Alexander
Pichushkin killed approximately 63 victims  in an attempt to cover the
chessboard with murders- but perhaps that tale- which is true- sounds too
far-fetched for fiction.

A few stories, such as Anna Starobinets’ "The Mercy Bus" set in and around
Kursk Railway Station read more or less like a stew of American noir tropes
re-heated in a contemporary Moscow setting. Others however, are a little
more striking. The most celebrated contributor is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
(finally on the brink of international stardom at age 72) who turns in a short,
almost classically perfect narrative of a man who murders his wife, and is
haunted by the event for years afterwards. Another excellent tale is Dmitry
Kosyrev’s "The Coat that Smelled like Earth" which recasts the conclusion of
Gogol’s "Overcoat" as a bizarre investigation into the fate of the coat Stalin’s
lieutenant Lavrenty Beria wore when he set forth on his rape expeditions in
the 1940s and 50s. In both stories there is a fascinating blend of the Russian
tradition, soviet history, contemporary setting and noir sensibility. Other
authors of note include Alexei Evdokimov, co-author of "Headcrusher", which
has been translated into 8 languages and Irina Denezhkina, a former
exponent of zygote lit* whose yarn is surely the weakest in an otherwise
admirably consistent anthology.

According to Goumen, Kosyrev is the only contributor who would count as a
“best seller” in Russia- “indeed he is one of the bestselling writers in Russia
today”. Not coincidentally he is the only “genre” author in the book, although
the others come laden with prizes and critical acclaim. Goumen explains the
selection procedure she and Smirnova pursued as follows: ‘First of all we
were looking for writers who live in Moscow or are well familiar with the city.
The second ambition was to give a wide range of voices: established writers
(Ludmilla Petrushevskaya being definitely the most renowned in the list) go
next to rising stars (like Sergey Samsonov and Anna Starobinets),
champions of neorealism (Alexei Evdokimov) neighbor with writers working in
realms of fantasy and literary thrillers (Sergei Kuznetsov or Maxim Maximov),
historical detective novels (Dmitry Kosyrev) or those exploring post-
postmodern fiction reality (Vyacheslav Kuritsyn or Andrei Khusnutdinov)….
Different as they all are these writers are representative as voices and
trends in Russia – and they all took it as a creative challenge and an exciting
task, to write a piece for this anthology.’

Thus Moscow Noir serves a dual purpose: it is both an attempt to introduce a
hitherto neglected genre into Russian literature and also a calling card from
largely unknown Russian writers hoping to achieve wider international
recognition.  So far the first part of the plan has borne fruit: Eksmo books will
bring out a Russian edition this October. Says Goumen: “The publisher
decided to take the risk…the combination of a noir fiction guide and brilliant
literary names made it the winning factor – the publishers loved the book and
are now very excited about the coming launch.” Meanwhile Sergei Kuznetsov
a film and pop culture critic whose story Moscow Reincarnations closes the
anthology has already found representation for one of his novels in the US:
‘…and I hope to start cooperating with them on (his) latest novel as well’
adds Goumen.

And with Moscow Noir already three months old, Akashic continues apace
with the noir series. Forthcoming titles include Haiti Noir edited by Edwidge
Danticat, Mumbai Noir edited by Altaf Tyrewala, and Lagos Noir edited by
Chris Abani. As for Moscow, regardless of whether noir becomes popular in
Russia the city will remain supremely dark and brimming with evil. Indeed,
visitors might be well advised to toss their Lonely Planets and take the
Akashic volume with them instead if they want to get a taste of the latent
violence and macabre wickedness that lurks in almost every corner of that
fascinating, horrifying, ugly-beautiful metropolis.


*Zygote lit- tedious category of books written by teenage wunderkinds,
published with much hype and then rapidly forgotten.

Originally published in Publishing Perspectives Frankfurt Book Fair Show
Daily, October 2010.