July 2010

Guy Cunningham


Moscow Noir edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen

Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen, editors of Moscow Noir, are upfront about their ambitions for the project. “This anthology is an attempt to turn the tourist Moscow of gingerbread and woodcuts, of glitz and big money, inside out; an attempt to reveal its fetid womb and make sense of the desolation that still reigns,” they write in the book’s introduction. To that end, they’ve assembled over a dozen stories by contemporary Russian writers, each set in a different Moscow neighborhood.

Interestingly, though, what the collection reveals best is the reach and influence of American popular culture -- particularly Hollywood. Take, for example, the story “Wait” by Andrei Khusnutdinov. It follows a gangster named Veltsev as he hides out at an apartment building that offers “rooms for anyone who need(s) a cheap place to stay for the day, no papers required.” There he crosses paths with a woman named Lana -- who claims to be a virgin, but might just be a prostitute -- a team of Uzbek thugs who think he has a cache of stolen money, a former Soviet intelligence agent, and assorted other characters.

Veltsev is no fan of Hollywood himself -- dismissing films like Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers as “farfetched” -- but when cornered he goes on a superhuman killing spree on par with one of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. He and his associates even speak in the clipped, sarcastic voices of movie tough guys:

“Everyone got blown away. What were you thinking? The committee’s mopping up both the crooks and the cops. You know who Mityai was working for. They’ve got three mil on you.”

“Already know how you’ll spend it?” Veltsev asked.

Kirla said nothing, breathing loudly through his nose.

“Sorry,” Veltsev sighed. “Here’s what’s up. I need a couple of clips for my Beretta -- bad. Forty minutes tops. Bring them?”

A number of other stories display similar influences. The characters of Vladimir Tuchkov’s “Pure Ponds, Dirty Sex, or Two Army Buddies Meet” are all a part of a “game” where the participants hunt each other down on the streets of Moscow for the viewing pleasure of unseen rich spectators, in the spirit of any number of American films, dating back to 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game, where humans become “the hunted.” The title of another story, “Field of a Thousand Corpses,” even echoes that of the recent slasher flick House of 1000 Corpses (though the story itself, about police corruption, is quite different from its Hollywood namesake).

Just because Moscow Noir doesn’t really reveal the “fetid womb” of the Russian capital, however, doesn’t mean it's not a lot of fun. “Wait,” “Pure Ponds,” and “Field of a Thousand Corpses” are all top-notch genre pieces, and the anthology itself is remarkably consistent. The book is part of Akashic’s ongoing series of noir collections that began with the unforgettable Brooklyn Noir, and fans of the other Noir anthologies will find nothing to complain about.

It’s a pretty diverse collection, in terms of style. Anna Starobinets’s story “The Mercy Bus,” for example, is a fairly standard noir tale -- complete with double-crossings on top of double-crossings, theft, murder, and a first-class femme fatale named Foxy Lee -- that relies on narrative twists and turns instead of breathtaking action, and does a pretty good job of continuing in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and others. On the other hand, “The Doppelganger,” by Gleb Shulpyakov, has more of a Twilight Zone vibe. It centers on a successful actor who finds himself haunted by an exact double. It begins on a street corner, where, “with frightening clarity, he saw himself. His own face -- familiar to the point of disgust from all the films and posters.” Shulpyakov’s emphasis on the actor’s descent into paranoia is a welcome contrast to the violence of a story like “Wait.”

So is the light postmodernism of a story like Sergei Samsonov’s “The Point of No Return.” It begins with a pretty basic setup -- two roommates, one attractive, charismatic, and successful, the other bitter and unlucky. But then things get interesting. The charmed Tatchuk proposes to write a short story (also) called “The Point of No Return,” about two roommates, one “an aristocrat” and the other “a pale shadow, wracked with envy.” Tatchuck sketches out a plot rather similar to the story we are reading -- two roommates, one successful, one jealous -- culminating in murder. When he finishes, however, his roommate Bessonov declares, “it seems sort of unrealistic to me. I suggest you make a few changes.” Those “changes” throw the entire story -- both the one Tatchuck is describing and the one the author is reading -- on its head, and suddenly we are heading in a completely new direction. It’s by far the most daring narrative gambit in the anthology, and it works quite well.

Another highlight is “The Coat that Smelled Like Earth” by Dmitry Kosyrev, also known as Master Chen. Though nominally about a sexual predator on the loose in Moscow’s Birch Grove Park, much of the narrative looks to Lavrentiy Beria, a key ally of Stalin during the “purges” of the 1930s. Beria was reputed to also be a serial sexual predator, and his lurid actions may have inspired the crimes being committed in Birch Grove Park. Unlike the rest of Moscow Noir, “The Coat that Smelled Like Earth” really does give Western readers a glimpse into the way Moscow’s history informs the city today.

Moscow Noir edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen
Akashic Books
ISBN: 1936070065
280 Pages