Sunday, September 27, 2009

Smart Women, Dumb Choices: Latynina’s Distressed Damsels

Genre fiction has fascinated me since I read my first socialist realism novel, Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, in college. The rules of sotsrealism were painfully clear… and harshly enforced. I also loved sentimentalism, particularly Nikolai Karamzin’s story “Бедная Лиза” (“Poor Liza”) and all the “teary” imitators that followed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

I enjoy Russian detective novels, too, and think part of the attraction is the illusion that the books mirror real life in contemporary Russia. Two short novels by Julia Latynina, who’s also a radio journalist at Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow), showed me, once again, how crooked, as they say in Russian, the genre-based mirror is. I chose Latynina’s Только голуби летают бесплатно (Only Pigeons [or Doves] Fly for Free) for its title. The volume includes another short novel, Ничья, which could be translated as Nobody’s Woman or The Tie, as in a tie game. Both translations fit.

Latynina’s two short novels occupy the “new Russian lifestyles” corner of the detective subgenre I think of as “damsels in distress.” Latynina’s women, whom we watch make their ways through crime-related situations, barely resemble the modest single mothers with problems in Polina Dashkova’s novels, nor are they like the rich, friendly McDonald’s customer who’s the heroine of many of Dar’ia Dontsova’s ironic detective books. But they’re still familiar.

My genre fascination is related to that familiarity: avid genre readers know the typical plot turns and character types they’re likely to encounter. I love watching for new twists that update the familiar and respond to post-Soviet social changes. Latynina’s books both focus on fundamentally honest and intelligent women – one is an architect, the other is a student at the London School of Economics – surrounded by wealth. Both books outline webs of white-collar and violent crime, showing how the women get caught up.

Latynina’s writing is concise, simple, and not especially evocative, and there is too much bare description of crooked business deals for my taste. Plus many piranhas. Latynina doesn’t spend words developing round characters, but it’s obvious her women are tragically attached to their men – they contrast sharply with the more independent, practical women I’ve met in Dashkova and Dontsova’s books. Anya of Pigeons is so jealous of the attention her Moscow-based father pays to his mistresses that she tries to resemble them. (Paging Dr. Freud…) When Daddy is killed, Anya vows to find the killer in Moscow. What happens when all is revealed at the end of the book and Anya’s about to fly back to London without getting involved with her late father’s icky business partner? They end up kissing on the tarmac in the snow!!

We’re all pop psychologists these days, so let me just say I noticed some serious self-esteem issues with Elena in Nobody’s Woman, too. Like Anya, she thinks she’s not very pretty, and after a businessman dumps her, she ends up with his more violent rival. Both men also spend time with model-like women they demean for being unintelligent but (of course!) respect and desire Elena because she’s smarter and (of course!) beautiful. Let’s just say these guys spell big trouble for Elena.

I don’t mean to imply that these characters or their problems and actions are unique to Russia – at their genre-soaked cores, they’re as universal as the Cinderella story. That’s probably why they dominated my impressions of Latynina’s novels. Interestingly, when I searched for opinions of the book, I found this Russian review that says the two novels (and a third) will live short lives. Like me, the author, who goes by the pseudonym “Your Book Pilot,” also focuses on genre, noting an Aesopian aspect to Latynina’s fiction and comparing Latynina to Julian Semenov, a Soviet-era writer best remembered for the TV adaptation of his novel Семнадцать мгновений весны (Seventeen Moments of Spring). The Pilot writes that Latynina fell into the same trap as Semenov, who wrote analytical novels exposing political crimes.

Which brings me back to where I started: genre rules and reader expectations. Latynina’s book didn’t keep me reading until midnight, and I suspect Book Pilot also had no trouble putting it down. Even so, there’s always something fun about poking around in a book’s genre norms, particularly when that involves reading a fictionalized version of contemporary Russia to look at the intersections of new mores with familiar old plots and character traits. I’m sure I’ll read more.

An excerpt of Latynina’s Ниязбек (Niyazbek) is available in Andrew Bromfield’s translation on the Glas site here.

For more on the Russian detective genre, I recommend Anthony Olcott’s Russian Pulp. I also think Vladimir Propp’s study of the limited narrative twists in fairy tales is a lot of fun. Wikipedia lists 31 “functions” here. Many of them – particularly Number 2, interdiction – certainly apply to the Latynina novels.

Photo: hbrinkman via

Latynina on Amazon

Russian Pulp on Amazon


  1. It's not the best books of Latynina. I'd recomend you "Охота на изюбря" and Инсайдер ("The Insider")

  2. Thanks, anonymous! I had a feeling these probably weren't her best.

  3. Insider has to be in the latest editing (2007). There arе a lot of improvements in the last editing.