The Death of Achilles: A Novel (Erast Fandorin Mystery) by Boris Akunin; translated by Andrew Bromfield. Random House, 2006; $12.95; 320 pages.
FROM THE JACKET:
In 1882, after six years of adventures abroad, the renowned diplomat and detective Erast Fandorin returns to his beloved Moscow -- but his homecoming is anything but peaceful. In the hotel where Fandorin is staying, his old war-hero friend General Michel Sobolev (a.k.a. "Achilles") has been found dead in his armchair, felled by an apparent heart attack. Fandorin suspects foul play, and his instincts lead him to the boudoir of a beautiful German chanteuse in whose bed Achilles actually may have breathed his last.A mystery caper filled with invention, treachery, exotic locations, and unforgettable characters, The Death of Achilles scintillates.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"A criminally talented writer." -- Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung
"A Slavic Sherlock Holmes who speaks Japanese and English, is skilled in martial arts, and has lady-killer good looks." -- The Wall Street Journal
"[One of] the most successful recent mystery series to have been imported to the United States from faraway lands." -- The New York Times
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, who was born in the republic of Georgia in 1956. A philologist, critic, essayist, and translator of Japanese, Akunin published his first detective stories in 1998 and has already become one of the most widely read authors in Russia. He has written 11 Erast Fandorin novels to date, and is the author of two other series as well. He lives in Moscow. The four in the Fandorin series that have been translated and published in English are: The Winter Queen, Murder on the Leviathan, The Turkish Gambit, and most recently, The Death of Achilles.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Boris Akunin is in New York, attending PEN international literature festivities, appearing on panels, on the radio, and launching his fourth historical mystery set in 19th-century Imperial Russia and starring his dashing sleuth, Erast Fandorin. He is touted as being a Russian Sherlock Holmes because of his deductive talents, but he is much more physical, a genteel martial-artist Green Hornet-type who takes ice baths and stands on his head to meditate, and is served by a Japanese samurai sidekick whose life he saved, thereby obliging the man to follow him faithfully, forever. We rendezvous in the lavish PEN penthouse of the Roger Smith Hotel, 16 stories above Lexington Avenue, and settle into a huge sitting room. It is somewhat dark, the shades mostly drawn. After many days of meeting and greeting Americans and fellow international authors, Boris Akunin is all business, and we get right to it.
"I know Akunin is a pen name," I say, "but are the rumors true that you were almost Molotov? As in the gasoline firebomb? Or is this apocryphal, this story?"
Akunin ponders. When he speaks, his voice is clear and small -- a few decibels.
"In the beginning I was thinking of maybe taking the pseudonym Molotov, because of the Molotov cocktail [an improvised incendiary device used by Russian soldiers during WWII] and because of my books being sort of a combustible cocktail of highbrow and lowbrow literatures. But Molotov was a historical figure who invokes so little sympathy, Akunin was much better."
"Your books have been described as voznya , a 'romp.'" British reviews invoke their wonderful expression "barking," as in mad. The London Times has lauded his "charm, elegant writing, abundant wit."
"'Playing around.' Ya."
"Your hero, Fandorin, spent six years in Japan and speaks Japanese. His assistant is a yakuza -- a fallen samurai. You yourself studied Japanese and worked as a translator for many years, translating Japanese literature into Russian. But what I was curious about was, what was it like going from the Soviet Union to Japan?"
Mr. Akunin hums. "It was almost a miracle, because it was very hard to get out of the country. I was lucky. The Moscow University, where I was studying, had an exchange program with a Japanese university, which was a very rare thing for the '70s."
"What years did you go?"
"I went to a private university in a suburb of Tokyo. It was in 1977-1978. Of course, it was very important to me. Japan wasn't the West, but for me at the time it was a Western country. It was a big shock. When you grew up in a country like [the] Soviet Union, you were brought up to believe that you'd been very lucky. That it was the safest and the happiest place in the world. I remember when I was a teen, there were posters everywhere [with] skyscrapers of New York in the background, a big heap of rubbish and a small black child sitting there, trying to find something to eat. And on the other side of the poster [was] a Young Pioneer [a member of the communist youth organization], with rosy cheeks, very happy, surrounded by blossoming Moscow. The inscription beneath it said, 'Two worlds. Two childhoods.' ' Da mira ya vetz ya .' Afterwards, when the Jewish emigration started from the Soviet Union, there was a joke that said, 'Dra mira. Dra Shapira.' 'Two worlds. Two Shapiros.' So one stayed in Moscow, the other was going to New York."
I laugh and say, "Were you tempted to stay in Japan?"
Silence. I worry I'm being too candid. "Did the culture draw you?"
Mr. Akunin laughs and very quietly responds: "Well...it wouldn't have been fair to my colleagues, to my comrades, because had I defected the exchange program would have stopped, and all the students in the later years would have suffered."
"They would have rolled up the program?"
"In the Soviet Union were mysteries outlawed? Not encouraged?"
"Not outlawed," he says. "Conan Doyle was translated, of course, but the genre of the detective novel was practically nonexistent."
"In Japan," I explain, "during the Second World War, the government actually banned mysteries as unpatriotic. But after the Armistice, when the writers took to paper again, they leapt toward social realism and away from the very saccharine fiction that was promoted during the war for morale reasons. You didn't go in that direction. You went more toward fantasy. I was wondering what drew you there, in that direction, as opposed to, say, [toward the realism of] Le Carré [author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a Cold War classic]."
Akunin inhales. "Fantasy?" He pauses a moment more. "I wouldn't call it fantasy at all. Erast Fandorin is a historical detective. I tried to be very precise in the historical detail. Well, I treat history quite freely, but when I take a historical figure, I change his or her name a little bit so it will be clear that it is a fictional character, bearing a resemblance to [an] actual historical figure. They often say that I am embellishing or idealizing Tsarist Russia, this is not true. Absolutely. I have no illusions about that time. If it looks prettier than it really was, it is because of Russian literature. Because, for me, Russian literature of the period is more important than actual history of the period. And Russian history had a very attractive feature. It ennobled the object that it was describing, always."
"I noticed, in that period when you first started writing -- or just before -- other writers like Aleksandra Marinina, a lieutenant colonel of the Moscow police, and a couple of other writers.... There was an ex-convict, who was writing mysteries as well. I was surprised by their material -- as much of it as I saw -- translated but unpublished here. It seemed to steer away from the actual, very raw criminal life that was sort of exploding in front of them in those wild '90s. It also tended toward the more romanticized kind of detective writing. It seemed almost as if -- especially in her case [Lieut. Colonel Marinina's] -- they were afraid to take on the more serious mafiya, organized criminal activity."
"Marinina's? Mmmm. I don't know. I haven't read."
"There didn't seem to be any literary agents, of course, so she had a former colleague as her agent, or trying to be.
"Ya, I know him."
"How did you come to your [Russian] publisher? I assume you didn't have an agent either."
Akunin smiles. "Oh, it was funny. You might say, I was in an established position in the literary world, because I had been active as a critic-editor-publisher for quite a number of years. So, had I wanted to publish a novel of mine, it would have been easy. I could have given a ring to a number of my friends who were publishers and had it. But I didn't want it this way. Not because I was modest, but because I was afraid. I was afraid I'd publish a detective novel and it would be a failure. This genre, in general, was held in contempt by my colleagues and all people in serious writing. Which is why I took a pen name. So I had to find...I had to go the usual way, like anybody with a first book."
"By just mailing it to them?"
"Yes, sort of, sort of. I got two or three rejections, or no answers, which amounts to rejections. Because...the publishers just didn't understand why would readers want to read historical crime fiction when there was a lot of crime in [the] reality around them. And everybody was writing about mafiya and KGB and all that. So, finally, I went to the chief editor of a big publisher that I was working with and asked him to read the manuscript, just not tell anybody. He read it. Said, 'It's okay. But I'm starting a publishing house of my own. I want it to be the first book.' I said okay. So that's how it started. Afterwards it became evident that he had not much experience. No money. It was a tiny publisher. No money for advertising. So all went the hard way. The first four novels were a disaster. It was two and a half years before the books began to sell."
I refer to my notes. "The first book, The Winter Queen, sold six thousand copies. The next three sold okay, but not spectacularly, until the fifth book."
Akunin closes his fist like an apple. "Ya. The fifth book was like a bomb. Then the previous ones also instantly became bestsellers."
"And that fifth book was the Jack-the-Ripper story?"
"The book is called Special Assignments. There are two short novels. The first is a picaresque novella, 'Jack of Spades,' and the second is about Jack the Ripper. It's called 'The Decorator.'"
"And that's the one that really launched you in Russia? That first book, The Winter Queen, which first sold six thousand volumes, I understand has reached eight million. Is this true?"
We both laugh. "Fifteen million! Not the same publisher, though."
"No, no. I'm still with him. Now he has become rich, a collector of antique books."
"You are here [in New York City] attending panels at Columbia University. You are on the radio every time I turn it on. Your publishers just ran a full page [50,000 dollar] full-color ad in The New York Times Book Review for
The Death of Achilles to launch you. Tonight you appear at the Italian Cultural Institute on Park Avenue with mystery authors Henning Mankell and Messimo Carlotto. Do you do this same kind of [publicity] work in Russia, and have you returned to Japan also to promote your books?" Japan is but one of 35 countries in which Akunin's books are published.
"No. Normally I do not do this. This is sort of an exception. The American market is the most important in the world. The English language dominates [the] literary scene. If a book becomes successful in America, in most cases it helps to sell the book elsewhere. That's why I made an exception. And still, I could get out only for four days. My schedule is incredibly packed. In Russia I never do it. I never go anywhere on promotion tour, unless it coincides with material gathering. In March I went to Bristol, to a crime-fiction convention, because I needed to write a short story about Bristol. Honestly speaking, I came here also because I needed to get some material together for a book, an adventure for [my hero] Erast Fandorin, in America. So in Washington, I went to [the] National Archives. And I went to the National Indian museum. It was very helpful."
"You must research very quickly, because when you write, you finish a book in six to eight weeks."
"No, no, not anymore," Akunin protests.
"Not any more?"
"No. It takes six to eight months." He sighs at the thought.
"Ahhh. Yes, I loved your comments about having run out of all the good words after writing so many books."
"This is a problem."
"You've also said" -- I quote him back to himself -- "that Russia has always made the wrong decisions. And that you see Russian history repeating itself. That Russia is again at a crossroads and again has decisions to make. What are the crossroads this time? And what are the decisions?"
A silence follows. The room grows darker still as the afternoon winds toward early evening.
"The usual ones. The bigger ones. Decisions between individual values and collective values. Russia has always been between those two poles. After [Tsar] Aleksandr II was killed by terrorists, Aleksandr III was so frightened that he started just putting 'stone pavements over the grass' so nothing would grow. He was hoping to just stop the time, which is impossible. So the pressure simply grew until [everything] burst in the beginning of the 20th Century and almost nothing was left of Russia. The same mistake is being repeated now because, after the liberal reforms of [the] '90s, now we are getting a period of, as we call it in Russia, 'Screwing the balls.' Which is not a pretty sight."
"Your translator turns an elegant phrase. He is very graceful. I assume he is mirroring your ornate style. It's a very accomplished piece. Frankly, American publishers hate translations. They inevitably come in so rough, require so much work and added expense. And yours is as smooth as liquid. How did you and he work together?"
Boris Akunin leans back on the couch. "I was very cautious about my English translator. I didn't want to sell my books to an English language market for a long, long time. [They were among] the last countries where I sold translation rights. There were several translators who wanted to do the job. Andrew Bromfield, from England, was by far the best. He feels the style. He has just the right professional background, because he has translated both Leo Tolstoy and Viktor Pelevin, who is sort of Irvine Welsh."
"You have said that you don't write from the heart. That you don't have a serious literary soul. That you write with your brain only. What do you mean?"
"I mean that I am not an exhibitionist," Akunin says, in measured tones. "Like practically every highbrow writer. I do not want to..." He struggles for the word.
I tease: "You don't think Ulysses is the greatest novel every written in English?"
Amused, Akunin shoots back: "You don't think that James Joyce is committing a public hara-kiri with this novel? He is."
"It is celebrated here."
He grows serious. "Actually, the only writer, really big writer, who is not an exhibitionist is Nabokov. And still I am not sure of that. Myself, I do not want to talk about my inner problems. My readers have enough problems of their own. I want them to forget their problems. I do not write for myself, like a real writer would. I write for an audience. And if I don't have readers, then I won't write. I have a lot of friends who are real writers and actually they do not care. They want their books to sell, but if no one bought their books, they would continue writing."
"You don't think Charles Dickens was a real writer?" I challenge. Actually, Akunin's characters are similarly over the top and entertaining.
"It's better not to talk about [the] 19th Century, because [the] literary scene has changed so much. It's really useless to speak about whether Charles Dickens is mass literature or not mass literature. [The] cultural situation is different. Back then only educated classes read fiction at all. Now everybody can do it."
I disagree: "Actually Dickens's sales were phenomenal in the U.S. I think when the American population was 8 million, he at one point sold over five million copies. Can you imagine."
"No, I think it must be an exaggeration."
"No, it's in old printing [industry] books." (Cheap Book Production in the United States, 1870 to 1891, by Raymond Howard Shove, University of Illinois. Edwards Brothers Inc., Ann Arbor, 1937. Page 139.) I dodge the debate: "So you write two hours a day. Why is your schedule so busy. What are you doing the other 22?"
"Computer games. [His computer game based on his Fandorin character will be out early next year.] But I am absolutely spent after those two writing hours and not good for anything. And there are different stages of writing a book. Some of them are quite delicate. A trifle is enough to do in a day. It can be a telephone call. It can be...just anything. You feel you are a glass aquarium. Fragile."
"What kind of cards did you play, bridge or poker?"
"Can you describe the '90s -- when Russia experienced mass culture for the first time and everything was lawless and open. And that was the bad part. But the good part was that it was so open, and for the first time you could write anything."
"It was a really fascinating sight to watch this big nation discovering mass culture. And it was both an ugly sight and very vital, very full of energy. But speaking about the book market, in the first wave the translations [were] of American hardcore crime fiction and all those books for housewives, like, there was Sandra Brown everywhere. This sort of [down-market, commercial] reading. And, of course, translations were awful, covers were awful. The book was falling apart in your hand. Then the second wave was when our [Russian] authors started to write by themselves, and it was even worse. Because they were not professional. They thought the more blood, the more sex, the better. So it went in waves, one after another. The third one started with [Lieut. Colonel] Alexandra Marinina, which was a decent wave of a decent level. Intelligentsia started to read it and enjoy it -- a psychological detective, without all that filth."
"I am amazed that in ten years you've written 25 books."
"Eight years! It's worse than I thought. Writing at a pace of two hours a day, in eight years you've produced 25 books. Only four have been translated here in the U.S. so far. There are three series. Fandorin, of course, is one. The second series, I was astounded to learn, stars a Russian Orthodox nun as the sleuth. And the only weapon she wields are knitting needles. How did you come up with that?"
"It was easy. I just crossbred Father Brown and Miss Marple. That was it."
"Why sixteen books in the Fandorin series?"
"For two reasons. One is that I counted 16 subgenres of crime novel. And each of my Fandorin books represents a different subgenre. Another is that I counted 16 types of human character[s] in the world. And each of those books is addressing one of those [psychological] types."
"So if we can come up with more subgenres for you, you have to keep writing Fandorin stories." He laughs. "Film rights have been sold to The Winter Queen, the first title in the series, yes?"
"To Paul Verhoeven, who made Basic Instinct, yes."
"You seem to be taken with film," I note. "You speak of Tarantino quite favorably as having launched a new wave, a new idea."
"Yes, I think that what I'm doing in literature is quite similar to what Tarantino is doing in cinema. I mean the constant allusions and quoting, and having fun with classics in a quite anarchist way. I love his films."
"They're very playful."
"Mmm. You never know what to expect from Tarantino's movies. They're so bold; they're so fearless. So untypical for Hollywood. Of course, he has become a Hollywood pattern by now. But in the beginning he was breaking all the rules. So, yes. Playful and, what I value most of all, absolutely unpredictable."