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It is 1877 and the Balkans are, even more than usually, in turmoil. The Turkish Ottoman Empire is in danger of losing its grip on its European possessions. Serbia and Romania, already autonomous, are fighting for full independence as well as to extend their own territories. The province of Bulgaria is in open revolt, brutally but ineffectively suppressed with the aid of the brigandish Ottoman irregulars onomatopoeically known as the Bashi-Bazouks.
Russia, eager to reverse its setback in the Crimean War some twenty years earlier, seizes on this opportunity to intervene on the side of the Slavic independence movements. With Romanian support, the Russian army crosses the Danube to attack Turkish positions in Bulgaria.
So far so much in accordance with the history books. What they discreetly fail to record is the role played in ensuing events by Varvara Suvurova, Erast Fandorin and the full supporting cast of characters in Boris Akunin's Turkish Gambit.
* The plot *
Varvara Suvurova is a young Russian woman of aristocratic birth but determinedly progressive views and headstrong character. When her fiancé is sent with the army to the Bulgarian front she resolves to join him and makes her unofficial way into the war zone, only to find herself robbed and abandoned at a wayside inn full of threatening locals. She is rescued by the timely intervention of Fandorin, ostensibly a Russian volunteer returning from fighting alongside the Serbs. After a brush with marauding Bashi-Bashooks, the pair reach the Russian headquarters, where Fandorin is revealed as a secret agent bearing vital information about a forthcoming Turkish assault on the strategic town of Plevna.
Russian manoeuvres intended first to defend and later to retake Plevna all go inexplicably wrong - inexplicable, that is, unless there is a spy or traitor in the camp. Varvara's fiancé comes under suspicion and is arrested, leaving her open to the gallant, and in some cases not so gallant, advances of a host of impetuous admirers. These include the dashing young General Sobolev, the reckless gambler Count Zurov, the smarmy Romanian attaché Colonel Lukan and the flamboyant French newspaper correspondent Paladin. Of the leading characters, only the amiable British reporter McLaughlin and grim policeman Kazanzaki seem immune to her allure. And Fandorin himself, who remains politely protective but irritatingly - from her viewpoint - impersonal.
Fandorin's dispassionate approach has its advantages, however, as the list of leading characters from the preceding paragraph also becomes the list of suspects. He alone retains his capacity to think clearly when both the seniority of the Turkish agent and the scale of the plot become apparent. Will Fandorin succeed in unmasking the master-spy and thwarting his devious schemes before Russia's ambitions come to grief at the gates of Constantinople?
The answer might surprise you.
* Narrative technique and style *
Rather cleverly, the tale is told from the viewpoint of Varvara Suvorova rather than that of Fandorin himself. Ensuring her presence at all the critical events does sometimes require some slightly implausible juggling on the author's part, but it pays dividends. For a start, it lightens the mood. Despite her avowedly earnest outlook, she comes across as essentially frivolous and vain, easily flattered by the attention paid to her. This makes for some entertaining byplay. For example, in the final scene in which the villain, at last revealed, has her temporarily at his mercy, we find the following exchange: " '...forget that you are Russian and I am a Turk. I am a man who has chosen a very difficult path in life. And, moreover, a man to whom you are not indifferent. I am even a little in love with you myself.' Varya frowned, stung by the words 'a little'."
Her role also enables crucial clues to be subtly woven into the narrative. Given the complexity of the plot, the story-telling is deftly organised. Deftly organised doesn't, however, always mean easy for the reader to assimilate, particularly non-Russian readers who are unlikely to be acquainted with the historical background. Akunin addresses this difficulty by prefacing each chapter by an invented contemporary newspaper report; these help, but there is still a lot to take in for a full understanding of the situation.
Additionally, of course, there is the traditional Russian difficulty of having a large cast of characters, each of whom may be variously referred to by first name, first name and patronymic, first and last name, last name alone or by informal diminutive or nickname. Varvara, for example, is also known as Varya, in westernised form as Barbara, as Varvara Andreeva and Varvara Suvorova. Incidentally, if you think I have been sexist referring to Varvara mostly by her first name but the men by their surnames, I am merely following Akunin's prevailing usage.
Akunin's style is readily readable, but not edge-of-seat exciting. The characters are well-drawn, and the dialogue is engaging and colourful, at the same time as doing its job of conveying essential information. Fandorin's detection of the spy is soundly logical. As a thriller, though, the book is competent rather than inspired. Considering the story consists of action-packed adventure, one might expect a rollicking read, and it doesn't quite rollick.
* The Fandorin Series *
Turkish Gambit is chronologically the second in a series of novels featuring Erast Fandorin. Although apparently twelve have now been written in total, only seven have so far been published in Britain. It is not strictly necessary to read them in sequence, but in some cases doing so helps. The Death of Achilles, for example, which follows Turkish Gambit, utilises some of the same characters and it is as well to have been introduced to them in the earlier book. There is little direct connection, though, between the first in the series, The Winter Queen, and Turkish Gambit, and I have chosen the latter book to review here because I regard it as a better example of Akunin's use of historical background.
In any case, there appears to be no such a thing as a typical Fandorin novel. Akunin himself has apparently said that he intends to write a total of sixteen, each exemplifying a different "subgenre" of detective story and with the villains representing different character types. Having only read five so far myself, I feel ill-qualified to comment.
* Use of historical context *
Akunin's interweaving of his story into the historical fabric of the times is exemplary. The siege of Plevna took place exactly as described, with only the underlying reasons for the initial failure of the Russian assaults and their eventual success being devised for the purposes of the book. Similarly, the final advance towards Constantinople. The senior statesmen and generals on each side are real historical personages, and their interaction with Akunin's invented characters is plausibly presented. General Sobolev is interesting in being somewhere between the two: clearly modelled on the real-life General Mikhail Skobolev, but with name and personal details slightly altered; not so much, one suspects, for the purposes of this book as for The Death of Achilles, in which his early demise occurs in less than heroic circumstances.
The interplay of historic fact with a fictional story is, of course, by no means an innovation of Akunin's. Among many examples it brings to mind MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, especially as their periods overlap. Young Fandorin would have been a contemporary of older Flashman, and one wonders if their paths ever crossed on some fictionalised battlefield. They could not, though, be less alike as characters. Where Flashman is a self-indulgent braggart, Fandorin is cool, reserved, determined and ascetic.
* Sinister subtext? *
Fandorin is also conformist and conservative, which in the context of Tsarist Russia means decidedly right-wing. He scoffs at Varvara's progressive ideas: "I am opposed to democracy in general. The democratic principle infringes the rights of those who are more intelligent, more talented and harder-working; it places them in a position of dependence on the stupid, talentless and lazy." One often feels that a tendentious contrast is being drawn between her naïve and scatter-brained idealism and his pragmatic, single-minded dedication to the interests of the Russian state. The fact that he is also portrayed as courteous and considerate does nothing to contradict this theme.
In the political circumstances of modern Russia, this undercurrent has implications that could even be read as sinister: as justification for the limitations on democracy imposed by the current government, its harsh attitude to critics and its pursuit of a nationalistic agenda. I have even seen it argued that the superficial resemblance between Fandorin and Putin - both are career secret agents and purposeful patriots, both sober workaholics, both physically small men with an interest in martial arts - cannot be coincidental.
Perhaps. Personally, my approach is to leave such thoughts on one side, enjoy the stories simply as stories and hope that a dyed-in-the-wool old liberal like me will be impervious to any such propaganda.
* The author *
Boris Akunin's real name is apparently Grigory Shalvovich Chxartishvili. One can understand why he might want to adopt a pseudonym, if only for pronouncability outside his native Georgia. The only slight oddity is the choice of pseudonym, which brings to mind Bakunin, a prominent Anarchist thinker; odd because Akunin's protagonist Fandorin is anything but an anarchist. Perhaps it is just a coincidence. In any case, Akunin has lived most of his life in Moscow, writes in Russian and regards himself as a Russian.
His work is enormously popular in Russia, where the Fandorin books are all big best-sellers. Also in his repertoire are another sleuth, Sister Pelagia (a crime-busting nun operating in the period around 1900), and another secret agent, Alexei Romanov (involved in an intelligence war of wits against a WW1 German counterpart). He has also written experimental work in other genres, and is well-regarded for the way he has drawn on traditional Russian literary devices in his modern work.
* Unexciting details *
Turkish Gambit is published in the UK by Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, translated into English by Andrew Bromfield. Cover price is £7.99 for the paperback, which weighs in at 266 pages. Other Fandorin books are available from the same publisher.
* Recommendation *
As you may have gathered, I'm something of a fan of the Fandorin novels. But then I like history, I like detective stories and I like something a little out of the ordinary. If you share those tastes, and if you can stomach the arguably authoritarian agenda, I'd recommend Turkish Gambit to you very highly. If not, I'd be more hesitant: to enjoy it fully you do need to be able to wrap your head around a multiplicity of characters and quite a bit of historical detail, and you might not find the story's excitement justified the effort.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2010