After calling the Moscow Noir short story anthology “a dark book indeed” two years ago, I think I can sum up St. Petersburg Noir, a new collection edited by Julia Goumen and Natalia Smirnova for Akashic’s noir anthology series, as “a pretty dark book.” Put another way: If Moscow is pitch black, St. Peterburg is moving toward deep dusk.
I loved the brutal, elemental scariness of the Moscow book—and recognize how very skewed my perspective is after living and working near all too many Moscow crime scenes—but wonder if the slightly lighter St. Petersburg collection, which is very decent, might find a broader readership.
Bits of St. Petersburg Noir’s stories blended together in my mind as I read, melding into a composite portrait of a city loaded with poverty, aimlessness, drugs, back streets, squalid apartments, ballet, and canals… plus murder and other violent misdeeds set amidst cultural sites and monuments. Here are a few stories that especially distinguished themselves for me:
Andrei Rubanov’s “Barely a Drop,” translated by Marian Schwartz, felt the most classically noir to me, focusing on a writer who takes the train to St. Petersburg to spy on his wife, whom he suspects of having an affair. Rubanov is an economical writer who can fit a lot into a short story.
The first story in the book, Andrei Kivinov’s “Training Day,” translated by Polly Gannon, looks at law enforcement, morgue runs, and everyday fears (e.g. elevators, one of my own Russia phobias) with an apt combination of seaminess and humor.
“The Sixth of June,” by Sergei Nosov and translated by Gannon, stars a first-person narrator who quickly introduces himself as a would-be assassin with plans to act on Pushkin’s birthday.
I thought Julia Belomlinsky’s “The Phantom of the Opera Forever,” translated by Ronald Meyer, a revenge tale, was one of the edgiest stories in the book. It begins with a small chunk of Crime and Punishment and moves on to “All our life here—it’s a fucking Dostoevsky nightmare!”
Though Pavel Krusanov’s “The Hairy Sutra,” translated by Amy Pieterse, felt silly and predictable with its museum zoologists, conflicts, and specimens, it turned out to be one of the most oddly memorable stories in the book because of its distinct setting, characters, and exhibits.
Still, the scariest and darkest story I’ve read lately is in the thick journal Новый мир: Alexander Snegirev’s “Внутренний враг” (“The Internal Enemy”). Snegirev’s story is rooted in sociopolitical and historical tension: a young man, Misha, gets a call about an inheritance and then finds out his family history isn’t quite what he thought. Snegirev plays on Misha’s idealism, identity, and dread of the KGB as he builds a creepy, phantasmagoric family drama set in a house that feels haunted. The story’s psychological suspense and intensity surprised me—and sucked me in—after some early passages that felt a bit conventional.
Finally, two novels I don’t plan to finish but that I want to mention because they’re both finalists for the 2012 Big Book Award: The first 140 pages of Vladimir Makanin’s Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky) also center around societal divides and the KGB as Makanin examines the consequences of informing. Alas, the novel, which draws on Chekhovian themes and reads almost like a play, didn’t hold my interest and I stopped reading after the first
act section. I also had
trouble with Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise Or the Way to the Glacier): eavesdropping on a guy who chats with his
herniated disc just isn’t my thing. There’s more to the book than that, of
course, including a Russia-India contrast, leeches, a stolen lung, and smoking
cessation courses, but the whole package felt gimmicky, contrived, and
surprisingly dull. Françoise was also
shortlisted for the 2012 NatsBest.
Up Next: Dmitrii Lipskerov’s 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Chanchzhoeh/Changzhuoe), Ergali Ger’s Koma, Andrei Rubanov’s Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits… I’m still not sure…), and Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (The Women of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women).
Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received a review copy of St. Petersburg Noir from Akashic Books, thank you very much! I have met and chatted with Julia Goumen, one of the book’s editors, on numerous occasions. I enjoyed meeting Alexander Snegirev, whom I’d known online for a couple years, at BookExpo America in June… I promised him I’d be honest in my assessment of “The Internal Enemy.” And, of course, I was!