Suspicion, art, and secrets fuel this historical novel
Yulia Yakovleva, Punishment of a Hunter trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (London: Pushkin Vertigo, 2021). First published in Russian in 2017.
“Reality was doubled, tripled, swimming about before his eyes.”
So says the hero of this funny, frightening, evocative novel. Vasily Vaitsev is a member of the Leningrad Criminal Investigations Department in the 1930s. He’s having a very tough run. Harassed by the secret police and apparently suspected of anti-Soviet tendencies, he’s also faced with a bizarre series of murders in which the victims are dressed in outlandish attire and posed making strange gestures. But only he sees them as a series: to his venal superiors and his beaten-down colleagues, they’re not related at all. Like many crime fiction protagonists before him, Vaitsev must overcome their scepticism and solve the mystery while dodging threats and suspicions from all sides.
As a historian, I often struggle with historical fiction. It’s the verisimilitude problem again. Smoothly-written historical fiction gives the impression of effortless time travel. You feel like you know what it was like. But actually, your informant is just a contemporary writer—and one who doesn’t even use footnotes! It’s hard for me to turn off the critical historian in my brain. Would Vaitsev really have offered a friend “fat and carbs” when rustling up a meal in 1930s Russia? Hush, brain!
In fact, in this novel, it really doesn’t matter, because it’s not meant to be realistic. True, it is a love-letter to St. Petersburg. I could almost smell the old maps Yakovleva probably consulted when she was writing. And it offers vivid descriptions of a specific time and place. The communal apartments, for example—these were formerly comfortable, spacious family flats, but now are divided room-by-room between neighbours who have to share the kitchen and queue for the bathroom. The bicycles in the hall, the galoshes by the door, the steam from many dinners being prepared, the careful negotiation of space and privacy and aggravation: it’s all here.
But the effect is of a well-crafted stage set, a work of art that is meant to evoke an atmosphere rather than offer encyclopedic detail. Yakovleva’s description, like Vaitsev’s reality, doubles and triples and turns back on itself. Phrases and images and gestures recur, like tiny motifs that knit the book together. In one chapter, a witness’s hands are like a slimy sea creature; later on, a new colleague has white, squishy hands that remind Vaitsev of a squid. Raspberry-coloured carpet is a feature of more than one interior. And so on. It’s not the random assortment of real daily life, but a well-formed hall of mirrors whose echoes and reflections begin to unsettle the reader in a very satisfying way.
Yakovleva portrays a city almost exhausted from the wrenching changes of the previous couple of decades, yet still lurching from crisis to crisis. After the Revolution, which brought in communism, there was the New Economic Policy. Now, that policy is over but no one quite knows what’s next. New workers are pouring in from the countryside to work at massive factories. A sack of potatoes acquired semi-illicitly is seen as a good present for a new sweetheart. The streets have new names, but everyone keeps forgetting and using the old ones.
And messing up the names of the streets can have serious consequences. The novel opens with a purge meeting at the CID, part of a process of weeding out ‘anti-Soviet’ elements across public life. The real social divide isn’t between classes, or have and have-nots, but between the people you can trust and the people you can’t, in a world where a wrong word might betray you as an enemy of the people. Yakovleva has a keen eye for social interactions and portrays with sympathy the tiny, devastating shifts that happen when a member of a group is suddenly suspected to be an informer.
Unusually for crime fiction, many things happen that don’t make sense; some mysteries remain unsolved or unexplained, and the resolution of the central case didn’t even feel that important to me by the end. In the end, reading this book reminded me of reading Kafka’s work. We feel the disorientation of being at the whim of a powerful, anonymous system—a state of being in which reality is blurred, we become numb to the absurd, and the idea of a coherent ‘big picture’ is, finally, revealed as the ultimate delusion.
I borrowed this novel from the Manchester Central Library. You can find out more about it here.