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The complexities of detection under Soviet rule… #ReadIndies @Glagoslav #margaritakhemlin

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Back in August last year, I took part in a Twitter readalong (organised by the lovely @ReemK10) of a book and author new to me; the book was “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, issued by the indie publisher, Columbia University Press, in their Russian Library imprint. Reading Khemlin was a powerful experience, so I was very excited to be contacted by Glagoslav, another favourite indie, who revealed they had published another Khemlin novel some years ago. That book is “The Investigator” (translated by Melanie Moore) and they were kind enough to provide a review copy which I was very keen to explore for #ReadIndies – and I was most definitely rewarded for that exploration…

I’m not sure how much work Khemlin had published before her early death in 2015, but as far as I’m aware only the two novels plus a handful of short stories have made it into English. Born in Chernihiv, also known as Chernigov, which was then a part of Soviet Ukraine, Wikipedia describes her as “Jewish-Ukrainian”; and the few facts given here are in fact incredibly relevant to her work. “The Investigator” was, I believe, her last novel and it really is a powerful piece of writing.

The book is set mainly in Chernigov in the early 1950s, and is narrated by the titular character, one Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy, a Captain in the local police. Following on from service in the army during the war, he’s been absorbed into the police force, and one day is given the chance of investigating a murder – that of Lilia Vorobeichik, a Jewish woman who’s been stabbed in the back. The case seems clear enough – as Mikhail puts it, “In the normal course of events, Jews were rarely murdered.” – and so a paramour of the dead woman is the obvious culprit and does indeed confess to the murder, before hanging himself. Case closed, then, and congratulations for the Police Captain on his first murder case? Well, yes and no…

Despite the apparent closing of the case Mikhail is not satisfied and continues to hang around the area of the dead woman’s home. The murder weapon is missing which is unsettling, and then Lilia’s twin sister Eva turns up, causing consternation. There seem to be rumours circulating that there’s something unfinished about the case, and as Mikhail carries on digging he becomes embroiled with a number of characters from the local Jewish community. There are more deaths, more rumours, and the plot becomes increasingly complex as Mikhail tries to dodge insinuations and find out the truth behind the death of Lilia. There are hints of all manner of conspiracies, and tentacles reaching back to the war. As the narrative moves on, Mikhail reveals more about himself and his past, and it seems his story may be a little unreliable. The twists and turns of the story disclose much about the Soviet world of that era, and at times you wonder whether a solution will be revealed. What is the reality behind Lilia’s death – and why does the devious dressmaker Polina Lvovna Laevskaya seem to be involved in everything?

The plot of this wonderful book is a complex and deeply involving one, and so I’m not going to give any more in the way of detail, as one of the strengths of this book is how it keeps you hooked as things are gradually revealed and the reasons for events becomes clear. However, what runs strongly through the story (as with “Klotsvog”) is the lives and fates of Jewish people in the Soviet Union. The dating of the story is very relevant; the early 1950s saw much change in the USSR, including the death of Stalin. Cleverly, Khemlin doesn’t reference the big events directly; instead, she deals with life on a local level (and in a place she obviously knew well) and only hints at what’s happening nationally. She’s such a good writer that simply having a character express fear of Jewish doctors in white coats will tell the reader who knows a bit about Soviet history just what she’s referring to… And that cleverness extends to other parts of the book, where she can hint at an event in just a sentence or two which throws your whole understanding of the story and its narrator into a different light.

Sometimes, I pay too much attention to looking inside and the surface is left without due operational oversight. I look for complications where there are none. Older and more experienced comrades have pointed it out to me, but I complicate matters.… Sometimes, I took it into account. And sometimes I let slip the opportunity for simplicity.

Ah yes – our narrator… Initially, Mikhail paints a portrait of himself as a happily married man with a daughter, simply doing his job. Like many of the non-Jewish characters in the book he expresses anti-Semitic views, and his attitude highlights many of the tensions which exist for the Jewish community attempting to assimilate into the Soviet world, particularly after the end of the War. Of course, some don’t want to assimilate, and the holding on to old practices also becomes an issue. As the narrative moves on, a complex backstory is gradually revealed which leads to the events at the start of the book; and it becomes clear that the lot of a Jewish person during the war was a dreaful one, with shocking treatment from both Soviet and enemy sides.

It’s hard to convey how good this book is without going into detail which could give major spoilers to a potential reader. Khemlin is absolutely brilliant at capturing the voice of a very singular narrator (it was the same with “Klotsvog”) and completely sucking you into their world. As we follow Mikhail’s voice leading us through the twists and turns of the case, it’s clear that things are actually not as they originally seemed and the reality is darker than anyone could have realised at the start of the book. “The Investigator” is a story which reveals the blackest treatment meted out to Jewish people and it often makes painful reading; parts of the reveal are heartbreaking and unforgettable. The book is gripping from start to finish, and Khemlin is an honest author in that her characters are never black or white, good or bad, but realistic. All have their faults, all are human – but none deserve the treatment they get…

Of course, underlying the narrative is an element that was woven cleverly into “Klotsvog” (and also a more recent work set in Soviet times, “Punishment of a Hunter“) and that’s a portrait of what it was to live under the Soviet regime particularly if you were Jewish. There is the constant risk of being reported to the authorities for something anti-Soviet you might or might not have done; and the feeling of conspiracy and secrecy which swirls round Mikhail could just be part of that time and place, or could be something more.

“The Interrogator” turned out to be an outstanding read, and a really powerful and thought-provoking one. Khemlin’s writing is brillliant, her characterisation excellent and her setting vividly captured and conveyed. Her narrative is compelling from start to finish, with Mikhail the most unreliable narrator, and the stories of the terrible treatment of the Jewish community are tragic. Although you could perhaps read this book on a surface level as simply a murder mystery, there’s so much more to it. I have no idea why Margarita Khemlin and her books are not better known, but they should be; “The Investigator” was definitely one of my top reads for #ReadIndies, and kudos to Glagoslav and Melanie Moore for bringing it to us.

*****

For other thoughts on the book, you can check out these two excellent blogs:

Lisa at ANZLitlovers

The Modern Novel

It’s worth noting that I wrote and scheduled this review before the current horrors began. My heart goes out to all suffering in the conflict, and I hope there will be a peaceful resolution soon…

“But that’s not my point” #WITMonth #Klotsvog21 @RusLibrary @ColumbiaUP @Rustransdark

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Having already read several books for WIT, I hadn’t necessarily intended to pick up another one. However, the best laid plans… Earlier in the year, I took part in a Twitter readalong of Olga Zilberbourg’s “Like Water and Other Stories” which was co-ordinated by the lovely Reem (Paper Pills) @ReemK10. She’s indefatigable when it comes to organising these events and when she announced one for this book, I had to join in. The work is questions is “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, and it turned out to be a powerful read.

“Klotsvog” was issued in 2019 by the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, and I was lucky enough to win it in a Twitter giveaway by the lovely @Rustransdark group at the University of Exeter. It arrived just as the first lockdown took hold, and somehow, I hadn’t got round to picking it up; however this was the perfect time to do so, and as always, having reading buddies really enhanced the experience. I confess, however, that I got to a point when I couldn’t stick to the ten or so pages a day and made my way to the end of the book – and was left a bit stunned and breathless. Let me try to explain why…

As a direct person, I myself never drop any hints and don’t welcome it when others drop them in my direction.

The book is narrated by Maya Abramovna Klotsvog, who introduces herself in the first paragraph with the statement that her name is not important: “what’s important is how somebody made life’s journey…”. Born of a Jewish family in 1930, her memories of her early life are given fairly briefly; having been evacuated during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ with her mother, they survived the conflict (although her father did not) and Maya manages some schooling and then finds a job in bank. This does not go so well, so she enrolls in evening classes – which is where things go wrong and Maya starts on her winding path through life. An affair with a married teacher leads to pregnancy; searching for a way to deal with this, she marries an older man, convincing him of his paternity. Her son Mishenka is born; she moves on to another husband, palming her son off on relatives; then there is a daughter, and another man. All of Maya’s life seems to consist of scheming, manipulating other people and constantly trying to improve her lot, find a nicer home and control what happens around her. However, none of this brings her happiness – in fact, in the end all she will find is heartache, and also that it’s impossible to deny what you are.

…my child will never speak Jewish. That’s for his own benefit. And don’t pretend you don’t understand. Jewish words cost you nothing. But oh, they could cost him so much. They could bring him death.

On first look, Maya Klotsvog is a shocking and awful person. Her narrative is focused entirely on her own needs, her own feelings and what she’s had to do to survive – she in fact seems proud of it. There are constant self-justifications, regular betrayals, twisting of facts and what seems like a total misreading of the reality around her. She describes herself as a teacher, even though she’s never really taught a class; however, her constant interference in the education of her children, where she describes herself as talking to the teachers ‘pedagogue to pedagogue’, make you cringe at her insensitivity and lack of self-awareness. She is, perhaps, the ultimate unreliable narrator because she has no idea how other people perceive her.

What she also fails to recognise is the effect she has on other people. Everyone close to her is eventually pushed away, and even those who love her can’t stay near her. Her hardness and lack of warmth are quite stunning, and although I felt sympathy for most of the adults who encountered her, it was the children who I felt suffered most at first. Manipulated, abandoned, shuffled from pillar to post, lied to – what a life.

And yet… “Klotsvog” is a subtle and nuanced piece of writing, and as I read I recognised that Maya is someone who desperately needs to control the people and surroundings she encounters on a daily basis, as the wider picture is out of her control. She’s almost OCD in her need to have things exactly as she wants them, and I suspect that her whole life is entirely driven by fear; having made it through the war and with knowledge of the Holocaust, Klotsvog is aware that she is vulnerable as a Jew in the Soviet Union, and her ghastly behaviour throughout the book comes from a need to survive. The book never spells out the horrors of the Nazi ‘final solution’, but it’s there under the surface and in little references which slip into the narrative. As Lara Vapnyar points out in her introduction, Stalin had his own plan for something similar; Jewish people were not safe in the Soviet Union, and as time moves on and Klotsvog grows older, anti-semitism seems to be becoming more prevalent. It’s hard to like Maya as a character initially, and her behaviour is reprehensible, but I came to understand her and in the end pity her.

…she’s scared. She’s scared because she ended up Jewish. All children are afraid of the dark. And Jewishness is akin to the dark for children if they don’t engage with it.

Because, as a character, she certainly makes the bed in which she ends up lying. Her behaviour not only alienates all those around her, it also enables the creation of one of the most disturbing child characters I’ve ever come across. I don’t want to reveal too much about this plot strand for those who might read the book, but let’s just say that considering the kind of children in Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” might give you the idea. I found this whole element absolutely chilling and I still haven’t recovered from the horror of it. Maya’s reaction to this child is not always rational, and definitely exacerbates things – but still, nobody really deserves that.

I started reading Klotsvog close on the heels of Petrushevskaya’s “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” and there were a surprising amount of resonances between the two stories, as both narrators were outcasts and outsiders, whether because of their political history or Jewish heritage. However, although both stories are told in mostly measured prose, the Sovietspeak and repeated phrases which creep into Maya’s language perhaps reflects the constraints under which she lived all those years. What could be seen as a book length exercise in self-justification certainly goes much deeper than that.

“Klotsvog” is translated by the always excellent Lisa C. Hayden, who brings her expertise and knowledge of the Soviet world to the book with marvellous results. Her friendship with the late author also adds a poignant edge, and Vapnyar’s introduction is also a emotional one. This really is a work which brings forth all kinds of feelings.

Well, I could go on and on about this book, and there is so much more which could be said, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say, “Klotsvog” is a powerful and unforgettable book, Maya is a monstrous yet ultimately tragic creation; this was a wonderful book with which to round off #WITMonth and thanks so much to Reem for organising the readalong which nudged me into picking up the book!

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