Russia's pioneering novelist

SUN JOURNAL

Author: Grigory Chkhartishvili has challenged his country's literary tradition with a series of popular crime novels.

August 08, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - He is the scholarly bad boy of Russian crime novelists. And he seems proud of the mischief that he has made.

Russian writers have long been honored as wise men and secular prophets, but by pioneering literary detective fiction here, Grigory Chkhartishvili has overturned some traditions of Russia's literary world.

"The whole project has a touch of anarchism in it, definitely," says the author, whose playful, teasing manner hides some very serious views.

Chkhartishvili - who writes under the pen name Boris Akunin - is best known for a series of 11 thrillers set in late 19th-century Russia, each featuring the aristocratic detective Erast Fandorin. Since Chkartishvili began writing fiction seven years ago, publishers have sold 10 million copies of his detective books.

Random House has decided to publish English translations of four of Fandorin's adventures for American audiences. Two books were released in May, The Winter Queen and Leviathan.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have praised the clever plots, vivid characters and wit as sharp as the sword hidden in Fandorin's walking stick. But to some fans, Chkhartishvili isn't your ordinary detective writer.

The scholar Leon Aron, writing in the conservative quarterly National Interest, said the Fandorin series was "without doubt the most interesting phenomenon in Russia's contemporary literary marketplace."

The author himself doesn't exactly hide his subversive ambitions: B. Akunin evokes the memory of Mikhail Bakunin, a 19th-century anarchist. And Chkhartishvili was once a Japanese translator. In that language Akunin means "bad guy."

Fandorin's adventures begin in The Winter Queen, when the young detective sets out to investigate a bizarre public suicide under the Kremlin walls in 1876. He winds up on the trail of a ruthless utopian movement bent on ruling the world. (No, it isn't Marxism.)

In Leviathan, a clueless French police commissioner boards a luxury liner in 1878 to track down the murderer of a prominent Parisian. Fandorin boards at an early port of call, takes up the challenge and leaves the French sleuth sputtering in his wake.

Chkhartishvili borrows scenes, characters and lines from some of the masters of 19th-century Russian literature - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Lermontov, Gogol - and also draws his inspiration from less-cerebral writers, including the romantic adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson, the clockwork mysteries of Agatha Christie and the gritty urban thrillers of Elmore Leonard.

It's this kind of literary gamesmanship - mixing high style with lowbrow detective fiction, classic literature with mass culture - that seems to delight the soft-voiced former translator and magazine editor.

Chkhartishvili started to think about writing detective novels in the 1990s, he says, while riding with his wife on Moscow's packed subway. She was reading a pulp fiction thriller with a lurid cover but she disguised it with the jacket from a more literary work.

"That was when I decided that someone has to write some sort of entertainment that ladies like my wife wouldn't be ashamed to display in public," he says.

But he didn't impulsively plunge into writing. From the beginning, he said, he planned to write 13 Fandorin novels, along with two volumes containing 13 short stories. Each book, he decided, would be written in a different literary style, from a different point of view and in a different mood.

Fandorin would star in all the books. But each would be an example of a different sub-genre of detective and adventure fiction - romantic adventure, the spy thriller or the locked-room mystery. "As a whole it is meant as an encyclopedia of the adventure novel," he said.

"Fandorin is for me a heroic figure which Russian literature has always lacked," he says. "When I was a kid, I was reading books, like a lot of kids. And you wanted to play. You could imagine you were Sherlock Holmes or whatever. But there was never a Russian character that you could play as a kid. There are attractive characters in Russian literature. Quite a lot of them. But they are not romantic. They are not something for boys to admire and to want to immitate."

In general, Russian heroes and heroines - think of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina - are tortured, tragic souls buffeted by the winds of fate.

"I remember playing Prince Andrei Bolkonsky," the dashing officer in Tolstoy's epic War and Peace, Chkhartishvili says. "But it was a very short game. Because you were lying on the field in Austerlitz, and there was Napoleon standing over you and saying, `Voila.' And that's the end of the game."

Then there was Prince Mishkin, the stammering, good-hearted hero in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. He treats everyone with decency and honor. But everyone, in turn, takes advantage of him. "Prince Mishkin was very nice," Chkhartishvili said. "But I don't think a normal boy would want to be like Prince Mishkin. Anyway, not me."

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