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21 November 2018

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Book Review

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The State Counsellor

Boris Akunin
(The Mysterious Press, $25, July)

In our time of the unbroken news cycle and relentless social media, it is hard to resist the attraction of an escape into fin de siecle Russia, particularly when it means following the escapades of State Counsellor Erast Fandorin.

Just a handful of Akunin’s dozen detective novels featuring Fandorin have made it into English (six have been made into movies in Russia), and this one is a very satisfying retreat. All the more so because Akunin is gifted at creating compelling characters, from the unconventional but proper Fandorin, to the Gogolian public servants trying to preserve their hides, to the synesthetic antagonist, Mr. Green, a “cold as steel” terrorist. Indeed, Akunin excels in this novel because he has you rooting both for Fandorin and Green, that each will vanquish the second-raters surrounding them so that the two face can off in an inevitable climax.

But, alas, the novel (published in Russia in 1999) does not provide pure escapism. For at its heart is a battle all too familiar. As voiced by Prince Pozharsky:

“This is not the kind of war in which any rules apply... It is not two European powers who are fighting here... this is the savage, primordial war of order with chaos, the West with the East, Christian chivalry with Mamai’s horde. In this war no peace envoys are dispatched, no conventions are signed, no one is released on his word of honor.”

Indeed, it bears remembering that modern political terrorism first put down roots in Russia, where the anarchist Catechism of Mikhail Bakunin and Sergei Nechayev began to wreak havoc well before the Bolsheviks came along. By their credo, the revolutionary must sacrifice all morality, family, and sense of self: “He is not a revolutionary if he feels compassion for something in this world... Day and might he should only have a single thought, a single aim: pitiless destruction.”

Fandorin’s nemesis in this novel, the elusive Mr. Green, is an exemplary anarchist, bent on destroying all symbols and representatives of state power (the initiating crime of the novel is a daring assassination on board a train). And as the state resorts to increasingly draconian measures to apprehend Green, Fandorin is almost alone in preserving a measure of civility or chivalry, certain that even this war must have some rules, some code of ethics.

And even if Fandorin-esque sympathies win the day in this battle (no spoilers here) we know they will not win the war nor the revolution that lurk just beyond the horizon.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/August 2017