Sunday, February 25, 2018

Riding Yakovleva’s Red Horse

I often seem to enjoy detective novels most for their portrayals of fears related to violent crime. I love the formal aspect, too, particularly when writers stretch the genre: What builds suspense and keeps the pages turning? Beyond that, I like thinking about how all those factors tend to differ in books from various countries. What might they indicate about cultures and societies?

In novels like Yulia Yakovleva’s Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse; you might want to click through for a plot summary), the fears go far beyond violent crime and, for me, anyway, the suspense comes far less from trying to figure out who dunnit than in wondering how detective Vasily Zaitsev will act when forced to face moral dilemmas. Zaitsev isn’t perfect but he does pretty well, ethically speaking, particularly given the decisions facing a resident of Leningrad in the early 1930s. I’ll confess that I don’t even remember who, exactly, ended up committing the crime. I focused primarily on Yakovleva’s geographical settings in Leningrad and Starocherkassk, not to mention the treacherous temporal setting when—this is mentioned early in the novel—most crimes were being labeled with “political.”

The basic crime here is that a lauded horse (Пряник, Gingerbread, sometimes a cookie, I love them) keels over at the race track and his rider ends up dead, too. Despite a distinct lack of interest at HQ, Zaitsev insists on investigating, leading him to a cavalry riding school, a vet school, and, eventually, Starocherkassk. The horse turns out to an Orlov and varying opinions among the novel’s horsey characters—is it better to purify the breed or bring in new blood?—seem to echo social issues of the time, particularly given the “red” in the novel’s title. Even with the horse details, in my reading, Zaitsev’s detective investigation feels like just a formal skeleton for a novel about a period when society is divided—the revolution wasn’t even a full generation ago—leading Zaitsev to wonder, for example, how a horse can differ in tsarist and Soviet times, and to notice differences in how former nobles and present peasants/workers comport themselves. Yakovleva somehow works this all into the story so it feels very natural: she’s chosen her temporal setting and formed her main characters wisely.

One of Zaitsev’s challenges is an assignment to travel to Starocherkassk with a woman named Zoya, whom he first meets when she comes to his office and throws up in his wastebasket. I figured out the cause long before Zaitsev does (he’s smart about crime but not biology!) and though he initially seems to have difficulty with Zoya’s feminist views (I noted down “Zaitsev not much for women’s lib”), he softens considerably over the course of the novel, particularly after realizing why she’s thrown up and seeing how she sacrifices so they’ll both have enough to eat during their time away. Zoya, by the way, brings Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on the trip with her.

Dekulakization is the source of many of Zaitsev’s moral dilemmas. He gives food to starving children at a station stop during his train trip with Zoya and is later asked to participate in a security operation, as part of a “communist answer” to the “kulak bandits.” When Zaitsev is asked to participate in another unsavory bit of work later in the book, he again finds a way to refuse. The era’s catastrophic combination of repression, food shortages, dekulakization, and collectivization affect Zaitsev and Zoya in other ways, too. Zaitsev even wonders if they’re being lodged with a family that’s moved into a former kulak’s house.

If all that isn’t enough, the book oozes with atmosphere, something Yakovleva’s very good at creating. There are smelly bars, Zaitsev’s crowded communal apartment (a neighbor lends him luggage), and the unbearable heat in Starocherkassk. Sweat. Fairly early in the novel, I noted “a feeling of filth” when Zaitsev pats a stray dog then goes to rinse his hand in the Moika river, the same place people urinate. Not to worry: the water smells fresh anyway. I cringed anyway. There are nice little touches about Zaitsev, too: before leaving Starocherkassk for Leningrad, he makes sure to return tiffin boxes to a cafeteria worker so she won’t get in trouble.

I enjoyed Yakovleva’s first Zaitsev novel, Tinker, Tailor (previous post), but I think Red Horse is a much better book. Tinker, Tailor has some awkward plot lines (the love story, the imprisonment) and is saved by atmosphere, Leningrad, a serial killer’s quirky method, and Zaitsev himself. Red Horse isn’t perfect—it’s a bit long in places—but it moves along at a moderate pace, going into enough depth about Zaitsev’s psychological state and all the difficulties he faces at home (why does he suddenly have lots of servants he doesn’t need?) and work (will he be a goner because he’s acting according to his conscience?). Yakovleva layers all that very well, creating a sort of hybrid book: it’s ostensibly a detective novel but, as I mentioned above, I don’t even remember who dunnit because I was far more interested in Zaitsev, his identity, and his environment. That’s what kept me turning pages. Reviewer Kira Dolinina, writing for Kommersant, seems to have read the book similarly and I hope she’s right that Yakovleva doesn’t seem to have exhausted the detective genre yet. I, too, would love to read more about Zaitsev.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, two English-language titles, and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Doomed City, which will be the first of their books that I’ve been able to read in its entirety in Russian. (I’m not quite done but I already know I’ll have to finish!)

Disclaimers: The usual. I first heard about Yakovleva’s books from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency; BGS represents Yakovleva and quite a few of my authors, and I often collaborate with them.


Post a Comment