The Russian Affair
Michael Wallner’s second novel opens with its female protagonist watching as a bearded man goes for a swim in the river. It is twenty degrees below zero and windy. Welcome to 1960’s Moskva (not Moscow), a place where national elites eat zakuski instead of hors d’oeuvres and drive chaiki instead of limos.
Atmosphere is no doubt one of The Russian Affair’s strongest suits. The book presents an account of everyday life during the Brezhnev era that is both knowledgeable and authentic. Not all of it will come as a surprise to Western readers. The use of newspaper instead of toilet paper, the endless lines, the resentment toward elite privilege – these were all details of daily life in communist Russia that were well-reported in the West. Wallner references these facts early on in the book (one imagines that he would have to), but he doesn’t stop there. He uncovers an astounding variety of day-in-the-life minutiae that will be surprising and fascinating to most. He describes the struggle for necessities like screws and washers, the angling for a grave within the Moscow city limits, the ability of any government vehicle to supersede traffic law, the bath houses, the almost religious importance society invested poetry, etc. The details roll on and on without becoming dull. One could almost believe that the German screenwriter/author had grown up there.
Even though Wallner’s story is best classified as an erotic thriller, the book is clearly in dialogue with Anna Karenina. His female lead, Anna, was named by her father, a state-sponsored poet, whose oeuvre bears a resemblance to the writings of Isaac Babel. Unlike Tolstoy’s Karenina, Wallner’s Anna is both a realist and a pragmatist. A married woman with proletarian concerns, her affair has little to do with either sex or love. It has a lot more to do with getting good health care for her child and escaping the drudgery of her practical marriage. The tension driving the novel does not come primarily from the psychological tension in Anna’s head over her affair, but rather from the high-stakes political intrigue into which she has been thrust. The differences between The Russian Affair and Anna Karenina provoke reflection on the eccentricities of the era, as well as on our own book-publishing climate.
John Cullen’s translation reads briskly. Its prose is rich in detail, but is not overly ornate:
Gray-brown buildings with missing plaster, a collapsing barbed wire fence, a street full of potholes, the rusting skeleton of a cannibalized tractor at the side of the road. Across the street a storefront whose sign was missing so many letters that the word bakery could barely be deciphered. Anna’s heart sank; in the middle of the street, she turned around in a circle. Silence reigned, but somewhere far off, a generator was running. The air smelled like fire. (The Russian Affair, 386)
Wallner’s second novel is a solid follow-up to his debut, April in Paris, and a strong entry to the erotic-thriller market. He continues to hone his social-history intensive style, which brings an intellectual edge unique to his preferred genre.