The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised that I’m discovering new and wonderful books and authors after all these years of reading – but I still get a real kick out of stumbling across something wonderful! I did last year with “Definitely Maybe” by the Strugatsky brothers; a piece of Soviet satire/sci-fi that was thought-provoking as well as being a fantastic read. it was published in the excellent Melville House Press’s Neversink Library, which seem to specialise in bringing obscure-ish works to us, and they’ve come up trumps with another book by the duo, in the form of “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn”, a work from 1970 translated into English for the first time – and what a treat it turned out to be…

dead mountaineers

The blurb has it that the brothers were sick to death of fighting with the censors, trying to get their work published; so they decided to produce a detective novel, in which no harm could be possibly seen. However, this being the Strugatskys things didn’t exactly go as planned… Despite having all the tropes of a classic crime novel – isolated ski chalet, motley collection of guests, vacationing detective, avalanche, murder and locked room mystery – the brothers take things a step further, throwing in ghostly manifestations, a decidedly intelligent dog, plus possible zombies and extra-terrestrials…. The whole book is a wonderful mix, but also a very, very wonderful read.

The detective in question is Inspector Peter Glebsky, escaping from routine and family to take a skiing trip to the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, recommended by his friend Zgut. You get the impression quite early on that Glebsky is a bit of an unreliable narrator, and certainly that does seem to be the case as the book progresses. Glebsky hits it off instantly with the Inn’s owner, Alek Snevar, and also the St. Bernard Lel (left over from the titular mountaineer). And the guests *are* a motley crew – there’s the scientist Simone, constantly climbing up walls and emitting hysterical laughter; Mr. and Mrs. Moses – the former very eccentric, the latter very beautiful; the magician du Barnstoker and the child of his deceased brother, known as Brun and of indeterminate sex; the highly strung Hinkus; and Olaf Andvarafors, described as a “blond viking”.

None of these characters are remotely straightforward, and as Alek and Peter strike up a kind of friendship, drinking together and chewing the fat, the Inn is subject to apparent manifestations; why is the shower always in use, but no-one knows who’s in it? Is Brun a boy or a girl? Does Lel know more than the humans? And why is Hinkus spending so much time on the roof in the snow? As the protagonists become trapped at the Inn by an avalanche, events become more and more mysterious and a murder takes place – but the body is in a locked room with absolutely no way of entry, the murder method itself is decidedly odd, and Glebsky (who is turning out to be a somewhat unreliable narrator) struggles to make sense of what’s happening around him. I’m not going to reveal any more about the plot because it’s a real delight watching it unfold, but let’s just say that the denouement is completely unexpected and surprisingly thought-provoking.

By midnight the owner and I had a pitcher of hot port already under our belts, and had moved on from discussing how best to notify the guests that they had been buried alive to more universal questions – for example, Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens); Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible); Is the universe in danger of succumbing to so-called “heat death” (No, it is not in danger, due to the existence of perpetual motion machines of both the first and second type in the owner’s barn); Was Brun a boy or a girl (Here I was unable to come to any conclusion, but the owner put forward the odd idea that Brun was a zombie, that is, a sexless creature animated by magic)…

“The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn” is a book that obviously is going to work on several different levels, and I expected no less approaching a work written during Soviet times: it functions as a basic murder mystery story, as a spoof of the genre itself and the tropes associated with it, but also crosses genres in a way that’s very ahead of its time. And of course it is a comment on the state of the world as it was in 1970 and how it would be seen by people from other worlds. It’s important not to forget that the Strugatskys are mostly known for their science fiction; a genre much used in Soviet times, and one that would allow them to slip commentary past the vigilant eyes of the censor.

strugatskys

In some ways, the book reminded me of another Neversink treasure I read recently, “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” which also spoofed the detective genre very successfully. I loved that book very much, but I think the Strugatskys take things to another level with this book, which left me meditating rather deeply on the mess humanity’s made of this planet and the failings of the human race. There were also hints of the influence of Stanislaw Lem, another recent discovery of mine, and I can’t help thinking that Soviet sci-fi writing is something which would bring rich rewards if explored.

Many years ago I discovered the Russian director Tarkovsky and was captivated by his film “Stalker”. It’s only very recently that I realised it was based on “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatskys (a book I’ve recently invested in). Although I don’t read much hard sci-fi nowadays it was a type of writing I was very fond of in the past and I think I could quite easily be drawn back to it again…

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