Sunday, July 20, 2008

Akunin

Apparently, the eponymous akunin is a Japanese word that translates to 'malefactor' or 'rogue' in English and '悪人' in Chinese. I have, unusually, become a fan of a certain Boris Akunin who has written novels of an intriguing and witty complexity. These novels, translated from Russian to English, are now on sale at all the best bookstores.

I don't normally review books here. You can go look at Bookbinding if you want capsule reviews of the stuff I've read that is of the generally entertaining mass-market (or not) variety. But I think that Akunin deserves an entry every now and then, the rogue.

I began with his first two Sister Pelagia books. Bookbinding has brief details. They were pretty good, in the G K Chesterton style of outrageous crime hidden by religious and psychological misdirection. I enjoyed them. And then, I encountered Erast Petrovich Fandorin, hero of this Akunin's Erast Fandorin series of thrillers.

Sigh. I read through the first book, The Winter Queen, at one sitting. It introduces a romantic young junior clerk in the police, develops his character, matures him, and gives him a life-long sense of tragedy, all at once. It is like Ian Fleming's James Bond novels less the gadgets and womanising, and with more character development, wit and style. And that's not to mention the style with which this Akunin paints everything in pre-Revolution Imperial Russian colours. And the plot twists, turns, and peculiar machinations of terrible foes. And why 'American roulette' was renamed 'Russian roulette'. The ending is particularly poignant.

Now I am working on the second book, Turkish Gambit. This one is written more as an historical/political adventure novel. The Akunin has decided that he will showcase one kind of thriller/crime/mystery/adventure genre in each book of the series. I am being greatly entertained by his riffs (some quite deliberately anachronistic) on other authors and classics of each genre. I shall end by showcasing two unfortunately very brief excerpts of his interesting sociopolitical commentary from Gambit, of the sort totally absent from Winter Queen. Enjoy!

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[Fandorin] buttoned up his collar and replied seriously, "If you live in a state, you should either cherish it or leave it — anything else is either parasitism or mere servants'-room gossip."

"There is a third possibility," Varya parried, stung by the phrase 'servants'-room gossip'. "An unjust state can be demolished and a new one built in its place."

"Unfortunately, Varvana Andreevna, a state is not a house; it is more like a tree. It is not built, it grows of its own accord, following the laws of nature, and it is a long business. It is not a stonemason who is required, but a gardener."

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The double-headed eagle that serves the Russian Empire as its crest illuminates quite magnificently the entire system of government of that country, where any matter of even the slightest importance is not entrusted to a single authority but at least two, and these authorities hamper each other's efforts while taking no ultimate responsibility for anything.

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