Saturday, March 14, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Akunin and Akhmatova

It’s nice that the Russian Cyrillic and Roman alphabets both begin with A… And that the gift of a Boris Akunin book, Любовница смерти (The Lover [fem.] of Death), pushed me to begin reading in Russian again back in 2001.

Akunin’s first nine books in the Новый детективъ (New Detective) series, starring Erast Fandorin, are wonderfully entertaining books that contain numerous allusions to Russian classics. Fandorin, whom Akunin purposely made vulnerable and appealing to women, knows martial arts, is a natty dresser, and wins in games of chance. The books take place in roughly 1875-1900 and are a wonderful combination of period atmosphere and postmodern techniques.

Each of the New Detective books is intended to represent a subgenre of detective novels: conspiratorial, hermetic, spy, and so on. Unfortunately, to borrow the terms of a Russian woman I once met, I think Akunin wrote himself out after the first nine Fandorin books: the prequels and sequels felt like potboilers, particularly the story where Fandorin visits the Wild West.

I read the Fandorin series out of order, starting with the eighth book, but I’d recommend beginning with the beginning, Азазель (The Winter Queen), and following the list. But… Non-Russian readers getting a start reading in Russian might want to begin with the Lover books: my recollection is that their language is much easier. Suspense makes detective novels a great way to take up reading in a foreign language.

Part of the fun of the Fandorin books is picking out references to classics. The Winter Queen plays on themes from Nikolai Karamzin’s “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”), which is fitting for the first book since Karamzin’s 18th-century sentimental tale is one Russian literature’s earliest classics. 

One of my Fandorin books, Особые поручения (Special Assignments), includes an excellent piece by critic Lev Danilkin that discusses Akunin’s technique, calling him a Jack the Ripper of a writer who tears apart the canon and reassembles it. Danilkin also notes that Russian readers feel comfortable with the series because of familiarity with subtexts and characters. I read the books so quickly the first time (the suspense!) that I’d like to reread them to catch more of the allusions.

Though I don’t read a lot of poetry, I want to mention Anna Akhmatova, whose “Реквием” (“Requiem”) [Russian-English page] is a haunting cycle of poems about the Stalinist repression. I have a particular affinity for “Requiem” because a Russian theater troupe performed it here in Portland, in Russian, in a beautiful production composed entirely of poetry. The Anna Akhmatova Museum is one of my favorite places in St. Petersburg. (The photo shows a monument to Akhmatova near the Kresty prison, which is mentioned in “Requiem.”)

The A-List for Future Reading: Petr Aleshkovskii’s Рыба. История одной миграции (Fish. The Story of One Migration) is tops on my list for when I finish War and Peace. Another A-book on my shelf is Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective). Chingiz Aitmatov’s Плаха (The Scaffold) is out on loan but I’m particularly curious about it after reading Amateur Reader’s accounts of Aitmatov’s И дольше века длится день (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years).Anna Akhmatova on Amazon
Peter Aleshkovsky on Amazon
Chingiz Aitmatov on Amazon
Viktor Astaf'ev on Amazon


  1. Akunin and Akhmatova are both wonderful (in their very different ways). I haven't read Aitmatov yet but am looking forward to it. Have you ever read Yuz Aleshkovsky? I've had his Kenguru for a long time but still haven't gotten around to it.

  2. No, Languagehat, I haven't read Yuz Aleshkovsky, though I read the very beginning of Kangaroo online and thought it seemed interesting.