answers Igor Pomerantsev
Igor Pomerantsev: Does crime fiction have a nationality, or does the genre itself mean more than the language it’s written in?
Boris Akunin: That depends on the subgenre. There are “classic” detective novels in which everything depends on the unpredictability of the ending. For this category the nationality of the narrator isn’t so important. There are “atmospheric” stories, where the texture is often more important than the plot. Though the top “ethnodetective” authors are usually foreigners – van Gulik, Donn Leon, Maccol Smith…
Does being successful in Russia for a crime writer mean anything different from success in Britain or America?
Like for any non-English language writer, this success doesn’t transfer well. Otherwise, I don’t suppose there’s much difference.
Are you interested in the way English or American writers handle the detective genre?
I used to be. Since I started writing myself, I’ve stopped reading detective or any other kind of fiction. Reading other authors’ work is harmful for an active writer. At least, it is for me.
Is there any fundamental difference between contemporary Russian crime fiction from the Anglo Saxon equivalent?
I don’t know. As I say, I don’t read contemporary Russian detective novels. Or non-Russian, either.
Do you take the new Russian political reality into account in your writing? I mean the failure of fledgling democracy.
I put everything that occupies my mind into my novels. Unfortunately, thoughts about politics in modern Russia are there all the time. So allusions and parallels are inevitable. Even if you’re writing about the distant past.
Which would be your top five Russian and Soviet detective novels?
In the USSR the detective genre existed in embryonic form. In Russian literature as a whole only “The Brothers Karamazov” come to mind. There, in contrast to “Crime and Punishment”, who the criminal is becomes obvious only right at the end.
Why aren't there any good Russian crime novels?
Historians of literature tell us that the Western novel is based on property conflict, conflict over an inheritance or some other sacred bourgeois value. The Russian novel, on the other hand, is a drama of love, a drama of a soul in torment, a tragedy of a hero misunderstood by his contemporaries. If that is true, then it becomes understandable why Russians have not written great crime novels about tracking down the criminal and his punishment, and why the names of Russian fictional detectives don’t trip off the tongue in the same way as Anna Karenina or the brothers Karamazov. Sharper minds often suggest that Crime and Punishment is a detective novel. Dostoyevsky had, indeed, translated Blazac’s Eugenie Grandet at the age of 22 (and translated it badly) and understood something of the drama of property and financial relations, but in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov split the old woman pawnbroker’s skull with an axe, and then struck down her sister who witnessed the deed, not for the gold watches, bracelets, earrings and chains, but to satisfy his ego; I am not one of the little people, I am the equal of Napoleon, Mahommed, Lycurgus, Solon… Consequently, the detective has to study the hero’s spiritual and intellectual state, and not investigate the circumstances of the act. Miss Marple would have hated that.
The classic detective genre had no chance in the USSR. It’s all to do with property. In attitudes towards it. Lenin’s call to “loot what has been looted” legitimized criminality and crime, from the level of nationalization by the state to everyday situations. Had it been written, the great Russian detective novel would have had to solve the crime of the Soviet Leviathan, but what detective would have risked his neck for a job like that? Soviet crime fiction was as pathetic as the living standards of Soviet people. But it was hardly their fault. In the USSR a private citizen was prohibited from owning not just banks, companies, and railways, but even a few flats. He considered himself lucky to own a car. A country dacha was the limit of his dreams, because the fruit and vegetables he grew there ensured his physical survival. Mind you, the state still owned the land the dacha was built on, and could forbid planting of potatoes or fruit trees or keeping animals. Children and grandchildren didn’t kill, poison or push people over a cliff for the sake of an inheritance: there was no inheritance. It was simply impossible to accumulate one. The word “forbidden” was everywhere: it was forbidden to hold foreign currency (for all his relative liberalism, Khrushchev had black market foreign currency traders shot!), it was risky and suspect to collect works of art, it was forbidden to trade jewelry and so on. Who was there for a villain to rob? The impoverished? The semi-naked? The terrified? And how could a Soviet reader as he turned the pages of his Soviet detective story feel any sympathy for a Soviet cop and dislike a freebooting robber?
All the same, there were one or two rare examples of success. The end of the Second World War saw the return of millions of young men from Germany and other Central European countries for whom killing the enemy and looting their property had become the norm. Some of them were unable to stop and carried on killing and looting at home. A number of books were written about this, though without saying anything about the source of the trend. Another cause of criminality after the war was families without fathers. There were dozens of books about this, but they’re not really detective fiction.
To touch on the spy novel for a moment. Because the entire Soviet ideology was a sham, Soviet spies in real life and in literature seemed, at best, pale shadows, but more usually felt like caricatures. A Graham Greene, or John le Carre, or Forsythe simply could not exist in Soviet literature. It seems ridiculous, but for good spy fiction you have to have heroes who either defend or betray real values: freedom, democracy, human rights. A Nazi or Communist spy could not possibly be a goody. Not when the whole thrust of his ideology was anti-human. An exception was the novel, and subsequent tv serial, Seventeen Moments of Spring. The hero was a Soviet deep cover agent working in the Gestapo. He was a cult figure in the Soviet Union, and even featured in a whole series of jokes, the supreme accolade in Soviet culture. Why? It wasn’t just because of the talents of the author, director and actors. The war with the Nazis was the only time in Soviet history when the interests of the people coincided with the interests of their rulers. As a result the Soviet agent was carrying out a mission that was not merely dangerous. It was noble. The Nazis were a real enemy, and fighting them was the duty of every decent person.
What’s going on in today’s Russia? Detective stories are written and published in their hundreds. The absence of a tradition is reflected in their quality, which as a rule is extremely low. True, Russian crime fiction has acquired a new hero: the private detective. New, because everything or almost everything “private” was banned in the USSR. The undisputed champion of the genre is Boris Akunin, who is widely appreciated by discerning British readers. Akunin prefers to work with historical material. In his books, Tsarist-era detectives are the positive heroes, while the political terrorists are the real evildoers, something unthinkable in Soviet literature. This is what crime fiction readers always wanted: not to be cheated, for the heroes to be heroes and the baddies to be baddies. As far as property is concerned, though, things are still a little murky. No, it hasn’t been “looted”, more like “stolen”. And stolen by people (“oligarchs”) in cahoots with the state. And in the classic detective novel, even the most sophisticated, good must be good and evil must be evil. Dialectics is for other genres.