Endless snow, shoveling, then slush and freezing rain – who knows what the rest of the winter will bring? The one sure thing is that it’s going to be a trial. Time for a vacation.
What’s that? You have responsibilities? You can’t skedaddle out of the weather misery that is February? How about a book, then?
You can get a real feel for Russian culture from Boris Akunin’s The Death Of Achilles (written in 1998, but translated by Andrew Bromfield and published in English in 2006). Or at least, you can a feel for Russian culture in the 1880s, when this delightful novel is set, whose hero is a sort of Sherlock Holmes meets Hercule Poirot, mixed in with a solid dose of the absurdism of that 19th century Ukrainian-born Russian treasure, the writer Nikolai Gogol. How’s that for a mess of name-dropping? But please, keep reading.
The Death of Achilles begins with the discovery of the body of a Russian national hero, seemingly kaput from natural causes. Follows a roller-coaster ride in which an odd little man, Erast Fandorin, returns to Moscow after a posting abroad. Fandorin has a funny mustache, a stutter, and multiple awards from royalty for solving many mysterious cases whose details are not up for discussion. His faithful sidekick is Masahiro Sibata, from whom Fandorin has learned the skills of the ninja!
The first part of this thriller follows our intrepid pair as they (brilliantly) muddle through the mystery. The second part is given over to the murderer. And the final section brings our two antagonists together.
And throughout, the wackiness of Gogol. One of the genius’ better-known works, The Nose — called “a piece of sheer nonsense” by one critic – begins with a barber eating a piece of bread and discovering something odd. “He put in his finger, and drew out — a nose!” The schnoz escapes, meaning to make a life for itself. You can easily find this short story online. But of course, you can also just read The Death Of Achilles on its own – for a visit into the Russian landscape, physical and spiritual.
Or perhaps you’d prefer to visit Russia’s grand neighbour to the south, China. The Good Women Of China: Hidden Voices (2003), is filed under fiction, but is written by a journalist, Xue Xinran, who recreates the real-life stories of the women she interviewed as host of a ground-breaking radio program in China in the 1990s. Xinran now lives in the UK, but was a true trailblazer in her native country. “Since 1949,” she writes, “the media had been the mouthpiece of the [Communist] Party. State radio, state newspapers and, later, state television provided the only information Chinese people had access to, and they spoke with one identical voice.
“Communication with anyone abroad seemed as remote as a fairy tale. When [then leader] Deng Xiaoping started the slow process of ‘opening up’ China in 1983, it was possible for journalists, if they were courageous, to try and make subtle changes to how they presented the news. It was also possible, although perhaps even more dangerous, to discuss personal issues in the media.”
And ever so slowly, Xinran pushed the boundaries: she allowed women to tell their stories. Eventually she received more than 100 letters a day, and took calls that filled hours and hours of answering machine tape.
And some of those stories are horrific. Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a time of terror (“the chapters of that book have been stuck together with tears”).
The writing is stark, a mix of horror or disappointment, although there is also happiness, and signs of generational change and wonder about the future. And of course, the determination to survive.
Xinran’s daily radio show, Words On The Night Breeze, became famous throughout the country, offering some small comfort and shared understanding and community to the many who listened.
The Good Women Of China offers a look into a time that we can only hope has come to an end in the People’s Republic.
Back to Europe, now. The city of Bruges received its charter in the year 1128, and has always been a trade hub (it’s now the capital of Belgium). It’s also been called the cradle of capitalism, and you can track the intersection of successful entrepreneurialism, war, intrigue and skullduggery in Niccolo Rising (2000), the first in a series of massive books (600 pages!) that presents the House of de Charetty, a moderately successful dyeshop in anno Domini 1460.
It will take a couple hundred pages before Niccolo’s identity becomes clear, but that’s because this ensemble cast of men and women encompasses some 105 characters (listed at the front of the book), and the setting is always on the move, from Bruges to Louvain to the city-states of what will become Italy, through mountain passes, sailing ships filled with alum and silk, to the hideout of the Dauphin seeking to unseat his father the French king.
Author Dorothy Dunnett has mixed dozens of real historical figures with the fictional de Charettys, telling a story of a young man using charm and business acumen to exact his revenge (just as a colleague announces blithely that “traders, you can rely on it, are suitors of perpetual peace”).
This is a fast-moving novel with lots of twists and turns and entertaining bits of medieval culture thrown in: “Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it,” she writes, and we gleefully await disaster.
Need a more contemporary travel experience? Check out the Lennoxville Library’s many travel guides (some feature cities, some whole countries), in both French and English. Or try a dictionary (English to —-?) to get a feel for a new language. Or meander through the non-fiction shelves to find a history of a favorite spot, or a travelogue. Maybe pick someplace warm.
– Eleanor Brown, February 15, 2013