Thursday, August 25, 2011

Charm offensive

What is one to make of the modern-day Russia? If the global media is to be believed here’s a country that has unabashedly shed its communist leanings (hell, it didn’t even celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the coup); you either have to be rich or beautiful or well-connected to live in Moscow or else be condemned for a life of vermin; the media is muzzled (we all know what happened to Anna Politkovskaya).

Snowdrops, the debut novel of A D Miller, former Moscow correspondent for The Economist from 2004 to 2007, doesn’t veer much from these stereotypes through his narrator Nicholas Platt or Nick, a 30-something Englishman, who is a corporate lawyer. Written in the form of a confessional billet doux to his would-be wife, Nick tells her about his ugly past in Moscow that involves a cousin-duo, Masha and Katya. After having come into contact with the girls under trying circumstances, Nick develops romantic feelings for Masha. As his luck would have it, she reciprocates and the carnal rituals follow on an almost daily basis.

On the professional front, he is the face of a group of banks loaning $500 million to the subsidiary of an oil major Narodneft (since the story is set in Putin-era Russia, comparisons with Gazprom are thinly disguised). The front man for this subsidiary is a shady but infinitely charming person called “the Cossack”. Meanwhile, Nick is introduced to the sisters’ aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, who is a staunch communist and still worships Stalin. One insanely cold night, she muses, “What a shame. Such a winter, and no war.” She starts adoring Nick and the hopeless romantic starts imagining a “happily married ever after” life with Masha.

Not surprisingly, a mixture of deliberate emotional and financial obfuscations gets Nick tangled in an intricate web of self-realisation. It doesn’t help the matters much when the Cossack also vanishes with all the money. With such a straightforward plot, Miller’s confidently brilliant writing comes to the book’s rescue on several occasions. Speaking about the stinking, moneyed ethos of Moscow, Nick says, “The cars congregated around the must-be-seen-in restaurants and nightclubs like basking predators at watering holes, while money went inside to gorge itself on caviar and Cristal champagne.” The hatchet job extends to the few Russian girls who never ended up in relationships with Nick because they wanted “a car, a driver to go with the car, one of those silly little dogs they drag around the designer shops in the cobbled alleys near the Kremlin”.

The novel acquires the gravitas of a Higher Lonely Planet here: “The old part of the Moscow Metro, in the city centre, is the sort of subway system you get if you give a tyrannical maniac all the marble, onyx and disposable human beings he can dream of.”

But then, exquisite writing (the writer studied literature at Cambridge and Princeton) can only buttress a gossamer-thin plot in short bursts. Moreover, Miller’s characters are way too flaky to be taken seriously. Nick needs a nice spanking for believing a comely Russian woman would fall for him with no strings attached. Thumb rule for expat men: never fall for local ladies unless you are George Clooney. Masha and Katya never entirely transcend the caricatures. As far as the Cossack is concerned, I would paraphrase what Voltaire said about God: “If there was no Cossack, it would have been necessary to invent him.” Tatiana is a direct lift from any Alexander Solzhenitsyn book. The only person who shines through this mess is Steve Walsh, a well-connected foreign journalist, an alcoholic and an inveterate womaniser, who knows the inner quarters of Kremlin creepily well. “In Russia, there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories,” he says.

Too bad that Miller chooses such an underwhelming story. Too many loose ends are allowed to hang around and this is where the function of the editor comes into question. Snowdrops reminded me of what Zadie Smith said about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: “Isn’t it hard to see the dark when it’s so lyrically presented?” For such run-of-the-mill characters, belletrism of the highest order is unjustifiable. I just don’t see any of these people mouthing these lines in real life. It’s as if they have spent all their lives in various creative writing workshops. Only Nick’s bitterness is this flailing novel’s defibrillator. Here’s he talking about his acquaintances in London: “People I know in London who had already got married began to get divorced, and people who hadn’t, adopted cats. People started running marathons or becoming Buddhists to help them get through it.”

Miller earns his journalistic stripes by making vague references to Putin’s inefficiency (“weasel President”) and to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Yukos fiasco (“uppity oil tycoon, his unfortunate lawyer and his livid minority shareholders”). Still, that doesn’t lift the spirits of an already torpor-induced reader. I would still suggest you pick up Snowdrops — to hurl at the Man Booker judges for long-listing this self-centred, high-class literary pretentious slush.

A D Miller
Atlantic Books
273 pages; Rs 399


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