Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pitch Black: Moscow Noir

Moscow Noir is a dark book indeed. This atmospheric collection of 14 short stories, edited by Russian literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen and commissioned for Akashic Books, brought back so many memories of Moscow during the crime-infested‘90s that I had to set it aside for a few days after reading half the stories. Of course I couldn’t wait to pick it back up and finish it. Both my reactions fit the editors’ intentions: “This anthology is an attempt to turn the tourist Moscow of gingerbread and woodcuts, of glitz and big money, inside out; an attempt to reveal its fetid womb and make sense of the desolation that still reigns.”

And that’s exactly what Moscow Noir does by introducing us to a spectrum of unsavory characters and unpleasant deeds. Crime stories, like fairy tales, satisfy a strange psychological need for their readers by, as the Moscow Noir editors note, putting fear, death, and all that desolation into context… and art. Goumen and Smirnova note the near absence of “a noir literary tradition” in Russia but they also discuss real-life noir’s history and homes in Moscow.

I’m always leery of anthologies where every story pleases -- I enjoy variety and surprises -- so I’m happy to say that I didn’t like all the stories in the book, though I finished all but one. I read the Moscow Noir stories in English translation because a Russian book with the originals won’t be out for some time; Akashic expects an Eksmo edition within about a year.

Two notes before I mention five favorite stories. Moscow Noir includes a map showing each story’s location. Specifying neighborhoods is a nice, eerie touch in Akashic’s Noir series. Personal experience with so many settings in the book added to its strength for me: I temporarily tabled the book after reading the Zamoskvorechye story because it took place in my old neighborhood and mentioned familiar places. (Familiarity means I’m especially looking forward to Akashic’s upcoming Philadelphia Noir and Copenhagen Noir.) Moscow Noir is also divided into four sections named after Russian classics: Crime and Punishment, Dead Souls, Fathers and Sons, and War and Peace. Here are five favorite stories:

Moscow Noir opens with “The Mercy Bus” by Anna Starobinets, whose Убежище 3/9 (Sanctuary 3/9) (previous post) I enjoyed so much last fall; Mary C. Gannon translated the story. “The Mercy Bus” (geography: Kursk Railway Station) involves murder and deception, a former prostitute named Foxy Lee, a ride on a night bus for homeless people, and a creepy final twist. Kursk Station always struck me as particularly seedy, so this starting point felt perfect.

I also loved Alexander Anuchkin’s “Field of a Thousand Corpses,” translated by Marian Schwartz. The story, set at Elk Island, features a cop whose co-workers call him Banderas “after the Spanish actor who conquered the world with his incredible muscularity and crazy machismo.” Banderas chain-smokes, drinks heavily, and takes his superstrong instant coffee with seven sugar cubes. I was happy to follow Banderas to the field in the title…

Gleb Shulpyakov’s “The Doppelgänger,” translated by Sylvia Maizell, is the Zamoskvorechye story. It tells of a solitary actor who one day sees a man that looks just like him. Two things worked in this story’s favor for me: my old neighborhood and the theme of doubles that continues to be so popular in Russian fiction. I even pulled Dostoevsky’s Двойник (The Double) off the shelf for a reread…

“The Coat that Smelled Like Earth,” by Dmitry Kosyrev (Master Chen), translated by Mary C. Gammon and set in Birch Grove Park, plays on history: it features an coat so reminded me of Gogol’s story (previous post), plus it refers to a Stalin-era figure that I won’t mention. “The Coat that Smelled Like Earth” felt almost like a double ghost story, and I loved the ending.

Sergei Samsonov’s “The Point of No Return,” translated by Amy Pieterse, is a first-person narrative about two writing students from the same town who room together near Ostankino. Samsonov’s story is more about psychological violence than physical violence, so felt a bit lighter than some of the other stories despite all the narrator’s bad intentions. I thought it worked much better than Samsonov’s overwrought novel The Oxygen Limit (previous post).

Taken together, Moscow Noir’s stories give the reader a tour of Moscow’s physical and criminal geography, blending into a horribly bleak picture of the city. It’s a book I’ll recommend to anyone who enjoys crime fiction or asks me questions about Moscow’s (fictional?) darker side.

Thank you to Akashic Books for providing me with a review copy of Moscow Noir.

Photo of daytime Kursk Railway Station: S1, via Wikipedia

Edit: I enjoyed reading this review of Moscow Noir on Bookslut.

Moscow Noir on Amazon

Akashic's Noir Series Books on Amazon
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  1. I am most of the way through this collection, after having to take several breaks throughout to get my optimism about life back. "Dark indeed" is certainly correct! I enjoyed most of the stories thoroughly, despite having to fight off the lingering impression they gave me that behind every apartment door in Moscow there must lurk a psychopath, luckless criminal, or murderous child. It would be interesting to see the Russian originals of some of these, but even without, I got the impression that all the translations are pretty adept. I definitely enjoyed this book, in a horrible kind of way.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Shelley! I'm glad to hear you're also enjoying the book... it's interesting to hear that you've also taken breaks. The stories felt very, very real to me, and I understand what you say about needing to your optimism back! I think all these reactions indicate that the editors did a great job putting the book together.

    I also think the translations read quite well.

    Enjoy the rest of the book!

  3. Great review. I'll look forward to your take on the Russian version. I think one of the biggest regrets of my education is that I didn't really learn Russian when I had the chance. Well, I will live vicariously through you!

  4. Thank you, Marie! I'm looking forward to reading what you think of Moscow Noir. I have so many books piled up that I'm not sure if I'll read the Russian stories or not when they come out... it may be pretty tempting since I'm interested in some of these writers.

    And to trade bits of envy: when I was little, I wanted very much to be a librarian! I loved working the circulation desk one day as a volunteer.