A bit of backstory: the beginning of Akunin’s novel was first published in Le Figaro, which in 2008 solicited a series of stories celebrating Homer. Apparently all the pieces Le Figaro published in the series begin with that line, which also happens to begin the fourteenth book of The Odyssey. Caveat: since I haven’t read The Odyssey (ouch!), I’m not sure what other elements Akunin may have borrowed. I can say that Akunin’s Odysseus is, initially, in Yalta in 1914. So is Fandorin, on a Chekhov-related mission. Odysseus commits murder and absconds to Baku meaning, of course, that Fandorin goes to Azerbaijan, too, both to hunt down Odysseus and to deliver trunk of clothes to his wife, the actress known as Klara Lunnaya, who’s making a film in Baku. Phew.
Well. Well. I’ve long had a sentimental soft spot for Akunin’s Fandorin novels because it was the unexpected gift of a Fandorin Book, Любовница смерти (known as She Lover of Death in Andrew Bromfield’s translation), that got me reading contemporary Russian fiction a decade or so ago. But, as I’ve noted before, my interest in Akunin’s Fandorin series dropped off rather sharply after He Lover of Death—the ninth book in the Fandorin franchise: I wasn’t even able to finish all four that came after that—and more than one Russian reader has suggested to me that Akunin исписалcя, wrote himself out, after He Lover of Death.
|Pipeline, Black City, 1905|
Will the loony Klara and Fandorin (who clearly disdains her and recognizes her use of her stage characters’ speeches in real life) stay together despite her cinematic suitor? Will Fandorin and his local sidekick Gasym, who mangles Russian grammar, catch the bad guys? Will the merry petroleum widow whose eunuch servant serves as a fixer (and voyeur, too: I think this bit player is one of the book’s most interesting characters) for her assignations set her eye on Erast Petrovich and lure him to her home? And, since someone somewhere referred to The Black City as containing alternative history: will the world erupt in war after the events in Sarajevo? I’ll never tell. All in all, I think I got more enjoyment from surfing for background on turn-of-the-last-century Baku and looking at old online photographs than reading The Black City, which lacks pep and pop, and feels all too much like a franchise novel.
Up Next: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Aviator and Alexander Snegirev’s Vera, both of which I’m enjoying, in very different ways. The Big Book longlist is coming soon, too. Also: translations due out in 2016. Translators and publishers, please let me know what you have scheduled for release this year!