Saturday, July 22, 2006

Wolves Eat Dogs

I have just finished the latest Martin Cruz Smith novel, Wolves Eat Dogs.

We first met the Russian detective, Arkady Renko, in Gorky Park, what must be 20 years ago. Since then the Cold War has ended and the Soviet Union has been dissolved. This story is set in a Russia of the Oligarchs, a Russia where the same KGB thugs thrive as bodyguards or run protection rackets, where the government functionaries still accept bribes (as sinecures in the great companies), where the average Russian lives a life of hopelessness relieved by vodka and where Renko displays his Presbyterian temperament among an orgy of Orthodox extravagance.

Incorruptible, plodding, lacking in imagination, Renko sees everybody as damaged goods.

The story opens with the apparent suicide of one of the oligarchs. Renko's bosses do not want an investigation. There are plenty of motives for murder, but an investigation would affect the share price. Something smells wrong to Renko, but he is ordered off the case. When the number two in the company is found dead in Chernobyl Renko is sent to investigate. As a Russian investigating with no authority in the Ukraine, now a foreign country, Renko is expected to find nothing. He is lied to, obstructed, threatened and seduced by the atmosphere. Although the area around the abandoned power station has been quarantined the older villagers have returned to take up their old life. It is an area rich in agricultural plenty with much to harvest. Only the shellfish and the mushrooms are particularly radioactive.

He we see a Russia of the peasants, making the best of their life, recognizing that everybody is damaged goods, why should the land be any different?

As a metaphor for the opacity of the case, Renko has become involved with a young orphan in the care of the social services. He takes him out at weekends to the sort of places that divorced fathers take their children and he tells him fairy stories. He plays chess with him, but the child always easily defeats him. The child won't speak to him, but when Renko is away in the Ukraine the staff of the orphanage keep ringing him up. When is Renko coming to take him out again? Renko speaks to him on the phone. He relates another episode of the fairy story, a fairy story that seems now to include aspects of the case. As usual the child says nothing.

Like Chernobyl, this is a country that you can't live in too long. Those who work there officially are rotated out every four weeks. Renkoland is too oppressive for me. I shall be back and perhaps before another twenty years, but not soon

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