Well dammit I don't care that Martin Cruz Smith thought the movie adaptation of his 1981 groundbreaking novel Gorky Park was "dreadful," or that the critics thought it was odd, or that it drew box office yawns. Temporary insanity, the whole lot of 'em. Including Smith! You may curl your lip at my cinematic taste but I’ll just grin, because I liked the movie! A LOT! BOTH TIMES!! [pausing here for a calming moment, in lieu of having a stroke] But it's the book I'm reporting on now. The book, which I also liked but which baffled me now and again with its intricacies and narrative syncopation, both times (go ahead and smirk if you must—I wasn't the only one, although most of the literary crowd hyperventilated with joy over it).
Both times I read the book after seeing the movie. First when it came out, in ‘83. I don't remember hearing any snoring. I was so raptly fixed on the screen I don't recall if there was anyone else besides me and my friend in the theater. I remember having to pee but not daring to run up the aisle to the men's room for fear something important would happen before I could run back to my seat. I executed, successfully, what we called in football practice "water discipline." When the movie ended, I stopped to pee, staggered out to the car and we drove to the nearest bookstore.
Reading the novel, I was thunderstruck by how accurately the leading characters matched their movie depictions. I knew with absolute intuitive certainty that Martin Cruz Smith when he wrote the book—altho I've not a scintilla of doubt he'd deny it--had William Hurt in mind for the role of Moscow Militia Chief Investigator Arkady Renko; Brian Dennehey as Kirwill, the New York cop whose brother was one of three murder victims found frozen next to a skating rink in Gorky Park; gorgeous Joanna Pacula as gorgeous Irina Asanova (Renko's love interest, among other involvements), and Lee Marvin as the slick, wealthy, worldly American who trades in exotic furs, among other activities.
Watching the DVD last week I saw I'd forgotten much of the plot, but then re-reading the book I again marveled at the perfect choice of actors for the leading roles. They came alive in the reading as smart-angsty-dogged Hurt, big-tough-no-guff Dennehy, beautiful-stubborn-sassy Pacula, and smooth-silvery-teflon Marvin. One might think that with such strong characters so perfectly cast in a setting as exotically mysterious as Cold War Soviet Russia the transition from page to celluloid would be a snap. But while it worked convincingly for me, possibly because I am easily mesmerized by well-executed passive entertainment, I can see how the sophisticate, who’d already read the book, might have expected a more comprehensive inclusion of the many facets in a novel that excited critics to gush of Smith as the new le Carré: “The most dazzling breakthrough in the suspense field since The Spy Who Came In from the Cold,” said the San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer, picking one at random.
And therein lies the problem, at least for me, with the sort of butterfly literary narrative that floats about, alighting hither and thither in a flattering tease of an indulgent readership that would rather risk getting lost now and then in a garden of thoughts and details than to admit preferring novels with clearer signage along their story threads. In a way, the former style, be it post modern, post post modern or some new style with a name I’ve not yet stumbled upon, brings to mind the old tale of the emperor who rides nude in his carriage thru the land believing what he’s told by his tailors that he’s clad in exotic new clothing. His subjects, of course believe as well what they’re told—except for the innocent child who shouts out the truth. The “child” in this instance is Peter Andrews in his albeit highly flattering review in The New York Times, gently admitting in the final paragraph that Gorky Park “suffers from a flaw...that is common among even the best examples of the genre. There is a falling-off at the end, when the plot turns about three notches more than my credulity is prepared to be stretched. But the first 340 pages were splendid.” My bratty critique of Mr. Andrews’s faint damning is that if the foregoing is so splendid how could the ending pose any trouble at all clarifying the whole? A reasonable answer: maybe the plot wasn’t handled quite so splendidly if a difficult ending was needed to wrap things up à la Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Yet, it doesn’t especially matter with either novel, in the long view.
I’ve come to expect the cognitive briar-patch ending with ambitious hybrid novels that mingle genre and literary. When it works, it’s the best of both forms. Story with thick glasses. Thing is, for me this approach is barely an irritant even when it doesn’t quite work, mostly falling off the page as superfluous style, so long as the voice and characters are engaging and the narrative thread remains fairly visible, and the atmosphere has the feel of real. I found all of these requisites present in Gorky Park.
Plot, of course, can be the deal-breaking bugaboo for literary avant guardists. Too much stink of story alarms their nostrils and sends them rushing to trusted critics for dispensation. I suspect it was the contemporary Russian setting that turned the trick for Gorky Park—the better to acquit Martin Cruz Smith for muddling the middle enough to pass muster with the gatekeepers of highbrow taste. That the book became a bestseller must have given our literary high priests serious pause, and it testifies to their courage for admitting in print they liked the novel despite its popularity.
Part of the plot muddle is the Byzantine political intrigue of the Soviet Union near the height of the Cold War, which extended not just to East/West high jinks but to the internal struggle between the KGB and the militia. This dynamic is most fascinating as Arkady Renko struggles to solve the triple murder. His initial focus is on finding an excuse to shuck jurisdiction by proving the murders were connected to activities of interest only to the KGB.
Renko works for the MVD, or Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is strictly limited to interior criminal matters, whereas the KGB theoretically is strictly limited to matters of national security. The two organizations occasionally work at cross purposes and squabble over jurisdiction.
He has a personal history with Major Pribluda, the local KGB chief, which adds a dangerous dimension to the rivalry. Renko’s sly moves to shove the case into Pribluda’s lap include requesting KGB tapes of foreign visitors to Moscow. He’s hopeful when recognizing a voice on one of the tapes of an international businessman known to be a KGB friend. If a link could be found between the murders and this individual, Renko tells himself, “he was sure Major Pribluda would step in.”
And this: “Was it possible–did he have the imagination–to create some elaborate case full of mysterious foreigners, black marketeers and informers, a whole population of fictitious vapors rising off three corpses? All of it a game of the investigator against himself?” One such “mysterious foreigner,” an American religious extremist, he learns, was likely one of the victims.
In such a tangle of duty, history, and politics—international and internal--it’s perhaps inevitable that Renko, despite being the son of a Red Army heroic general and the best militia investigator in Moscow, should find himself at some point under state arrest and in Pribluda’s custody.
Ain’t no way I’m going to try to describe the plot complications here. Wouldn’t be prudent. In fact, ‘twould be supremely redundant trying to reinvent the perfectly good wheel Peter Andrews gave us in his fine, brave 1981 review, especially considering the treacherous ground of opportunities to inadvertently commit a devastating spoiler. But I can say this: Arkady Renko lives to fight another day, and another after that, and another… He’s become a series character, and has gotten rave reviews at each outing.
I’m now reading Red Square, which I am liking thus far, A LOT, and expect to report on next Friday.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]