Sunday, August 1, 2010

Storytelling to the Nth Degree: Two of Iuzefovich’s Putilin Novels

Oy, the old unreliable narrator trick combined with the old fiction-based-on-a-real character trick! Leonid Iuzefovich’s (Yuzefovich’s) Костюм Арлекина (Harlequin’s Costume) and Дом свиданий (The Whorehouse), the first two books in a historical detective novel trilogy, have cramped my brain with layers and layers of reality and invention…

Where to start? Iuzefovich frames his novels about Putilin with a fictitious writer, Safronov, who visits post-retirement Putilin to take down stories about Putilin’s life and career. The detective stories in the books are ostensibly written by Safronov. Not so complicated.

But. The covers and descriptions of my Iuzefovich books don’t mention that their main character, Ivan Dmitrievich Putilin, was a real person who worked as chief inspector of the Saint Petersburg police during the 19th century. Somehow I missed that tidbit when I looked at translator Marian Schwartz’s Web site: Marian has translated Harlequin’s Costume and uses the words “real life” to describe Putilin. (I bought my books after Marian mentioned the trilogy when I interviewed her in this post.)

And the plot thickens: Roman Antropov, a contemporary of Putilin who used the pseudonym Roman Dobryi (“dobryi” means nice or kind) wrote stories about Putilin’s adventures. I haven’t read Antropov’s work about the “genius” inspector, but it’s online here. Of course I wonder how Iuzefovich might have played on them. But there’s still more: According to the Russian Wikipedia page about Harlequin’s Costume, Iuzefovich used Putilin’s memoir for material; the publisher’s name was Safonov, only one letter off from the writer in Iuzefovich’s books.

To summarize: it looks like we have one real person (Putilin) appropriated for two writers’ (Iuzefovich’s, Antropov’s) fiction, one (Putilin) memoir, and at least one fictional writer (Safronov) hired by a fictional representation of Putilin. Somehow, I’m sure there’s more to learn, but I’m stopping here for now.

Which brings me to where I’d intended to start, before I realized that Putilin existed: Iuzefovich’s Putilin may be a police inspector who solves crimes, but he takes a very flexible approach to the telling the truth about his own life and stories. He’s a horribly unreliable editor of the facts of his own life; he likes a good story. At the end of the second book, for example, when Safronov and Putilin work through details of the story, Putilin suggests Safronov keep the murder victim alive and cure his limp. For his part, Safronov notices that Putilin sometimes resurrects figures he finds appealing; Safronov initially misses some details from Putilin’s stories.

As for basic plot summaries… Harlequin’s Costume blends two lines: the murder of an Austrian diplomat and the search for Vanka Pupyr, a hardened criminal who hides out with a laundress. Though the diplomat-oriented part of the novel didn’t grab me at all – I’ve never been partial to geopolitical murder mysteries – I enjoyed Pupyr’s story and many of the secondary and tertiary characters. Both books have atmospheric settings, including taverns and the port.

The Whorehouse is a very different book: Putilin’s neighbor has been killed in the title institution, and Putilin searches for his killer. Iuzefovich tosses in references to mythology and literature when Putilin attempts to decipher the meaning of a mysterious coin-like medallion that keeps turning up: the truth behind the symbols turns out to be quite earthy, resulting in a mix of high and low. Both books have a feel of slapstick and farce, but those elements were particularly strong in some of the late-night interaction between neighbors in The Whorehouse.

For me, the real appeal of the books was the Iuzefovich-Safronov version of Putilin himself. I’m not sure if I’d go so far to call Putilin schlumpy but he isn’t a dashing or glamorous figure, and he’s not hard-boiled, either. His wife pesters him about not exacerbating his stomach problems, at one point he carries a jar of mushrooms in his pocket that he claims are a revolver, and his wife locks him out because he comes home too late after sleuthing. He even slips on noodles that he drops after snacking in an apartment he’s entered (without permission), to look around. He’s sometimes on the outs with his superiors but he has strong intuition.

The Putilin-Safronov team’s filtering of the truth for the reader was the most intriguing aspect of the books for me, so it was fun to make my late discovery that Putilin existed. Putilin, in the Iuzefovich rendition, has grown on me, and I hope to read the last book of the trilogy, Князь ветра (Prince of the Wind), which won the 2001 National Bestseller award. I’d also like to take a look at Antropov’s characterization of Putilin. And maybe even Putilin’s characterization of Putilin. Or perhaps I should look into police history, which might be even more memorable: Safronov and Putilin discuss “true” details that seem implausible, yet another affirmation, albeit from a novel, that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Translation watch: Iuzefovich’s literary agent’s Web site shows translations of all three Putilin books into various languages. Translator Marian Schwartz has finished an English-language manuscript of the first book in the trilogy.

Next up: Nikolai Maslov’s graphic novel/autobiography Siberia, which contains wonderful pencil drawings; then Evgenii Kliuev’s Андерманир штук (Something Else for You), a Big Book shortlister that I’m loving after setting aside Bakhyt Kenzheev’s Обрезание пасынков (Pruning the Shoots)…

The photo of Ivan Putilin came from Wikipedia; Wikipedia references a page on, which contains, yes, an article about Putilin.


  1. Gee! Do you have time for sleep, my dear? You have to be of German descent to produce such brilliant texts for such a long time!

    Valery Kulakov (under construction)
    ps: Lisa, wish you much health and happiness.Keep all of us, your readers,with your wonderful essays and reviews for many years to go.v.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment and your concern about my sleep, Anonymous Valery! I wish you health and happiness, too, and look forward to seeing your site when it's ready.