Moscow By Night

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soviet era: “In the postwar period the demand was for…uplifting films and fiction, while images of a dark reality could not be published.”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.

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