Thursday, March 27, 2008

History happens to us one at a time (Books - Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith)

I was so wound up yesterday at 11pm when I was done with the day's assignments that I had to read some of Child 44 to wind down. Not to say that this book exactly has a calming influence. What I admired in it yesterday was the way Tom Rob Smith integrates his knowledge of Stalinist Russia - everything from interrogation techniques of the secret police to the internecine competition between officers:

- Why is it you're such good friends with Anatoly Brodsky when everyone else in this building disliked and mistrusted him?

Zina was caught off guard: her sense of discretion blunted by her indignation at this lie:

- Everyone in this building liked Anatoly. He was a good man.

- Brodsky is a spy. Yet you call him good? Treachery is a virtue?

Realizing her mistake too late, Zina began to qualify her comment.

- All I mean was that he was very considerate with the noise. He was polite.

These qualifications were stuttering and irrelevant. Leo ignored them. He took out a pad and wrote down her ill-chosen words in large visible letters.


He wrote clearly so that she could see exactly what he was writing: he was writing off the net fifteen years of her life. Those words were more than enough to convict her as a collaborator. She'd receive a lengthy sentence as a political prisoner. At her age she had little chance of surviving the Gulags. He didn't need to say any of these threats aloud. They were common currency.

What interests me about this excerpt is how political history is integrated with the experience of a specific person in a specific situation. This is the kind of detail that I always crave in learning about the world. I know Stalin was terrible, yes I know many people were imprisoned in the gulags, but what happened to one of them exactly?

Leo's second-in-command, Vasili, will seemingly stop at nothing to advance himself. He tries to sabotage Leo's plan as they go to Kimov, a small town during the Russian winter, to pursue Brodsky. Vasili's techniques are simple - hire an incompetent driver, choose men for the mission who would already not be disposed to respect Leo.

By the time they were on the correct road, traveling west, on an approach to Kimov the storm had passed. A weak winter sun began to rise. Leo was exhausted. Driving through the snow had drained him. His arms and shoulders were stiff, his eyelids heavy. They were passing through the rural heartlands - fields, forests. Turning into a gentle valley he saw the village: a cluster of wooden farmhouses, some on the road, some set back, all with square bases and high triangular roofs, a vista that hadn't changed for a hundred years. This was old Russia: communities built around bucket wells and ancient myths, where the health of cattle was decided by the grace of the Dvorovoi, the yard spirit, where parents told their children that if they misbehaved spirits would steal them and turn them into bark. The parents had been told the stories as children and they'd never grown out of them, spending months stitching clothes only to give them away as offerings to forest nymphs, the Rusalki, who were believed to swing from the trees and could, if they so chose, tickle a man to death. Leo had grown up in the city and these rural superstitions meant nothing to him, baffled as to how their country's ideological revolutions had done little to dislodge this primitive folklore.

Leo stopped the truck at the first farmhouse. From his jacket pocket he took out a glass vial filled with small, unevenly shaped dirty white crystals - pure methamphetamine - a narcotic much favoured by the Nazis. He'd been introduced to it while fighting on the Eastern Front as his country's army had pushed the invaders back, absorbing prisoners of war and also some of their habits.

The passage about spirits makes clear why the conversion of Russian hearts was, at the same time, so difficult and so unquestioningly absolute. There are two examples in 100 pages of older women fearlessly standing up to Leo as he tries to carry out he duties. And Leo finds their opposition untouchable some how. There seems to be more than a shred of decency in Leo which is what is making the moment-t0-moment action of this novel so interesting. I also never knew that there was a history of methamphetamine use in the Russian secret service, inherited from the Nazis in World War II - it would be interesting to learn how wide spread its use was was, not among the elite, but among the rank and file.

There is another chapter about Lubyanka, the Moscow headquarters of the secret police, that I also wanted to post on, but I will have to save that for another day.


Anonymous said...

Ted, if you are interested in what "big history" does to ordinary individuals (and especially when it comes to the Stalin-ers), I suggest you read Orlando Figes' The Whisperers. I found that a very interesting and extremely readable book. Highly recommended!

Ted said...

Thanks, Myrthe. Maybe I'll be able to enter that world better than natasha's fire, which still sits on my TBR pile.

Eva said...

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to more posts on this in the future. :) (For some reason, that sounded really formal, but I couldn't think of another way to say it!)