Sunday, April 10, 2016

Akunin’s Black City

If Boris Akunin’s Чёрный город (The Black City) were to carry a descriptive tag, like the first nine of Akunin’s books featuring Erast Petrovich Fandorin—there’s a “political” detective novel and a “Dickensian” detective novel—The Black City might be labeled “a detective novel rooted in Greek tragedy.” The Black City begins with a line from Homer’s Odyssey, a line that sounds like this in E.V. Rieu’s prose translation of The Odyssey: “Meanwhile Odysseus turned his back on the harbour and followed a rough track leading up into the woods and through the hills towards the spot where Athene had told him…”

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
The Black City feels like it could have used a fair bit of editorial tightening and freshening—the plot twists feel pretty worn after turning many, many times—but it still feels more inspired to me than The Diamond Chariot, The Jade Rosary, or All the World’s a Stage. I’m sure my personal interest in Baku plays a big part here: I visited several times during the 1990s. I also think Akunin’s use of his geographical setting—a Baku swimming in oil plus all the crime, wealth, labor issues, and international figures that come with oil—and temporal setting, when revolutionaries are acting up and a certain archduke is murdered in Sarajevo, gives him lots of ways to work in bits of history and namedrop Diesel, the Nobels, and Koba, all while serving up a pretty standard combination of family drama, revolutionary and business activity, as well as, of course, crime. I admit to skimming through more than one section (the motorboat chase scene, for example, was simply too long) but did finish the book, though that was, alas, more out of inertia, old times’ sake, and interest in Baku than fascination with the plot or characters.

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!

Photograph by Carl Bulla (who sounds like a pretty interesting character himself!), via Wikipedia.


  1. A major publisher has just bought worldwide English rights to Petrosyan's "In the House That"; I hope it'll be out this year, since the translation is already done.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Anonymous, I see on the Elkost website that Amazon Crossing bought world English rights.

    2. Oh. OK, it's just that Amazon people told me that the info was still confidential. I guess not anymore.

  2. Dear Lisa

    I liked the Diamond Chariot, but I remember being surprised that it didn't seem follow on especially from the rest of the series.

    Also, I thought Diamond Chariot was supposed to be the last in the series. I am shocked (mildly) that Akunin is still dribbling them out.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Ivan! I'll add a hearty "same here" to your mild surprise -- I, too, though the series was finished a long time ago.