Of the several reasons Arkady Renko is my favorite fictional Russian detective, I almost hate to admit the prime one is his name: easy to pronounce and easier to spell than, say, "Sheremetyevo" or "Porfiry Petrovich." Russian language issues might also be why Martin Cruz Smith in Red Square refers to his characters mostly by their first names, as it would hardly do to call Arkady Renko "Renko" and then be stuck with interminable, tongue-twisting surnames for everyone else. It could simply be a cost-saving measure—less ink, fewer pages, not so prone to typos.
Okay, that's my facetious argument for preferring Arkady over all of the other Russian detectives, none of whom come to mind at the moment. More maturely, my sentiment concurs with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's in his New York Times review of Red Square, that "poor put-upon Arkady is so doggedly honest and unassuming."
How can we not like a guy who makes fun of himself? Like this: "Arkady had left Polina and hurried home in time to catch Irina’s first broadcast. Drinks with one woman, then rushing to the voice of another. What a sophisticated life, he thought." And this: "Arkady caught another glance of himself in the bar mirror. Grimmer than he thought, not the kind of face that woke up expecting sunshine."
Grim, yes, he’s Russian. Yet, there is no stereotypical crying in his vodka. He keeps plodding forward, brushing negatives aside with a self-effacing appreciation of irony. He’s a hopeless but stubbornly stoic romantic. A realist with innocent dreams he shares with no one but us.
In this, his third outing of the series' seven, Arkady is back in Moscow at his old job investigating crime, for a new city prosecutor. He'd gotten in deep doodo investigating a triple murder in Gorky Park, and was banished to Siberia, where state authorities tortured him (unsuccessfully) to rat out his lover, Irina, whom he'd helped escape to the U.S. Meanwhile, he lived on menial jobs in Siberia's freezing weather. He worked outdoors as a guard, labored in a reindeer slaughterhouse, and spent a year gutting fish on a Soviet factory ship in the North Pacific (setting of Polar Star, second in the series).
But the political winds have shifted in his absence, the government has lost control of the economy to thieves and gangsters, and the ruble has become a joke along with Communist Party slogans. People line up to buy everything from beets to black market trinkets. They buy anything they can afford, just to be able to buy something. They pay three rubles for a dead light bulb, for example: “Why, when a new bulb was forty kopecks? Since there were no new light bulbs for sale in the stores, you took this used bulb to your office, replaced the bulb in the lamp on your desk and took the good bulb home so that you wouldn’t live in the dark.”
Arkady sums things up with a line the poet Mayakovsky wrote in happier times: “ ‘Regard me, world, and envy: I have a Soviet passport!’ Now everyone just wanted a passport to get out, and the government, ignored by all, had collapsed into the sort of spiteful arguments that erupted in a whorehouse where no customers had come to call in twenty years.”
He feels at times that while he was in Siberia, “God...lifted Moscow and turned it upside down. It was a nether-Moscow he had returned to, no longer under the gray hand of the Party.”
Things heat up for Arkady moments after he visits an informant, a popular underworld banker, at a Moscow construction site where a major black market is doing business. The informant’s car blows up burning its occupant to death and incinerating all of his cash and papers. Arkady’s investigation soon gets him snarled once again with authorities, but with pit bull tenacity he persuades his boss to send him to Germany following a clue he stumbled upon in the victim’s apartment.
The clue is a fax from Munich asking simply, “Where is Red Square?” The question initially seemed silly, as everyone knows where Moscow’s Red Square is located. But Arkady learns the reference is to the famous Malevich painting, “Red Square,” worth millions and believed to have been smuggled out of Russia. He’s soon in trouble not only with his boss, the Soviet consul, and German police, but becomes a target of Chechen gangsters, who, we are told, are “the Sicilians of the Soviet mafias.”
Even his love life gets tortured in the scrambled ideologies of the time. Irina, the woman he rescued in Moscow and helped escape to New York, and then protected under torture in Siberia—altho he’d lost touch with her and had no idea where she was—is now an announcer for the Munich-based Radio Liberty, a U.S. owned propaganda station staffed by Russian émigrés and defectors. Arkady had religiously followed her daily broadcasts and, of course, looked her up when he arrived in Munich—much to his dismay. In a scene that carries the poignancy of Zhivago and Lara, she cuts him cold:
It was funny; in interrogation he had been naked, hosed down, insulted and hit, yet he had never felt as embarrassed as he did at this table. Besides being badly shaved, his stupid face was probably beet-red, he thought, because the evidence seemed to be that he was crazy. Evidently he had been crazy for years, imagining a connection between himself and this woman, who clearly shared no similar memory at all. How much had he imagined—their time hiding in his apartment, the shootings, New York? At the psychiatric isolator, when the doctors injected sulfazine into his spine, they used to say that he was crazy; now, over beer, it turned out that they had been right. He looked at Irina for any response, but she had the equanimity of a statue.
“I want to see you again,” Arkady said in spite of himself.
Irina studied him. “No, what you want is for me to say that I’m sorry if you suffered on my account. Arkady, I am sorry. There, I said it. I don’t think we have anything else to say.” With that she left.
I cannot take issue with Lehmann-Haupt’s impression of the novel’s conclusion, nor can I improve upon it. And as I am running out of gas myself, I’ll just give it to you here:
“If the beginning of ‘Red Square’ is too slow, the ending is too busy. It's meant for the rapid shifts of film, not the less visual perspectives of prose. At the end of the novel, the August military coup is inevitably unleashed, and its effect on the story is a little as if ‘Crime and Punishment’ were suddenly to burst into newsreel.”
But this observation of the standoff that ended with Gorbachev’s abdication, if true, is a breath of fresh air from the despair that led to it:
“Everywhere was a common look of astonishment, as if they had all ventured individually to drop their lifelong masks and show their faces. Middle-aged teachers, muscular truck drivers, wretched apparatchiks and feckless students wandered with expressions of recognition. As in I know you. And among all these Russians, not a bottle. Not a one.”
Stay tuned for Polar Star next week.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]