Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 17, 2018

All the World’s a Stage (Erast Fandorin Mysteries), by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield #BookReview

I am indebted to a Sydney author called  Assaph Mehr at Goodreads, for some crucial information about the antecedents of All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin.   In his review of this book, and of the whole series so far, Assaph explains that

Each novel is written as a different type of mystery. Akunin set out to rectify the low-brow reputation of the mystery genre in post-USSR Russia by writing worthy literature and exploring the wide gamut of sub-genres. Each novel is therefore excellently written as a different type of detective case. While there is continuity in the protagonist’s life between the novels, each is very different in themes and tones.

So this explains why a crime novel is shortlisted for the new EBRD Literature Prize for Translation!

A Russian reviewer called Anna Stargazer also had this to say:

It’s too bad how foreign language translations did not work for this one. All non-Russian readers seem to say that they couldn’t differentiate between the characters. If one reads in Russian, it’s impossible not to: every character’s stage name means something obvious, and you just can’t help seeing every one of them with your mind’s eye. (Masa’s stage alias “Gazonov”, for one, is hilarious – but the hilariousness is entirely untranslatable even if there are footnotes and whatnot.)

Also, the book is written in a beautiful Russian language. (Akunin’s writing style is always–well–good, but this work seems to have received some special treatment. New editor, perhaps?)

Well, forewarned is forearmed, and so I Googled quite a few of the names in order to try and appreciate what Anna calls the novel’s hilariousness.  Google Translate told me that Gazanov means ‘lawn’ or ‘grass’ – and ‘grass’ in English can mean a police informer, which is what the sleuth’s offsider Masa is supposed to be when he infiltrates the cast, though whether this euphemism works the same way in Russian I do not know, and Anna Stargazer doesn’t say.   But this approach did make reading the book more laborious, not something every reader is going to want to bother with, and I gave up on it in due course.  (And got by just fine, as far as differentiating the characters was concerned).

Nevertheless, a little research did reveal some interesting aspects of Akunin’s style.  He obviously researches the era of his novels carefully, and readers who know their Russian history and literature will enjoy his allusions.  This paragraph is an example.  The sleuth, Erast Petrovich Fandorin, is in Moscow, and there has been a murder in a theatre, and he is intrigued, hoping to be asked to help solve the case:

Many aspects of this event appeared phantasmagorical. Firstly, the bloody drama had unfolded not just anywhere, but in a theatre, before the eyes of a large audience. Secondly, the show had been an extremely jolly one – an adaptation of Pushkin’s Tale of Tsar Saltan. Thirdly, the audience had included a real tsar, not of the fairytale kind, whom the killer had left untouched. Fourthly, the theatre had been so well guarded that no one could possibly have infiltrated it, not even Pushkin’s hero Gvidon when he transformed himself into a mosquito. Viewers had only been admitted on the basis of individual passes issued by the Department for the Defence of Public Security – the Okhrana. Fifthly, and most fantastically of all, the terrorist had actually been in possession of such a pass, and not a counterfeit, but the genuine article. Sixthly, the killer had not only managed to enter the theatre, but also to carry in a firearm …  (Kindle Locations 125-132).

Bilibin’s Flight of the Mosquito (illustration for Pushkin’s Tale of Tsar Saltan) (Wikipedia Commons)

I started off discovering that Pushkin’s Tale of Tsar Saltan involves three sisters, one of whom gets to be a tsarina and the other two get to be jealous. So they chuck the tsarina and her baby into the sea but they are rescued by an enchanted swan.  The baby Gvidon grows up and with the help of the enchanted swan [ah-ha!] changes into a mosquito, flies back to the palace and stings his aunt in the eye.

The other point to note is that this crime takes place in pre-revolutionary Russia because there is a Tsar present in the audience – and the narrator points out that it’s odd that the murderer wasn’t after him.  That’s odd because Russia was full of revolutionary fervour at the time and it was not all that long ago that there had been multiple assassination attempts on the life of Alexander II.  And that is why the theatre was subject to the security procedures put in place by the Okhrana – the much feared secret police force in Tsarist Russia.

Kiev Opera House where Stolypin was assassinated

Based on actual events in 1911, the murder victim is Pyotr Stolypin.  Wikipedia tells me that the pro-monarchy Stolypin was a statesman who tried to stave off revolutionary fervour through major reforms including agrarian reform.  The Tsar put a stop to the judicial enquiry into the assassination and a Leftist revolutionary called Bogrov was too promptly hanged, giving rise to rumours that those who were against Stolypin’s reforms were behind the assassination.

Readers who know all this (or like me, discover it thanks to Google) will not be surprised when Fandorin doesn’t get to investigate Stolypin’s murder, but becomes involved in a classic melodrama-mystery instead.  But like a soppy adolescent he falls for a lovely actress called Elisa Altairskaja-Lointaine – considerably younger than Fandorin, but this is no problem (he thinks) because he believes in a theory of three ages of man:

‘Fifty-five.’
She was upset.
‘As old as that. I didn’t think you were more than forty-five!’
This was a painful subject for Erast Petrovich, but he had prepared well for it. ‘A man has three ages, and their link to the number of years he has lived is only relative. The first is the age of the mind. There are old men with the intellectual development of a ten-year-old child, but some youths have a mature intellect. The older a man’s mind is, the better. The second age is spiritual. The supreme achievement on this path of life is to reach wisdom. It can only descend on a man in old age, when the vain commotion has receded and the passions are exhausted. As I see now, I still have a long way to go to get there. In the spiritual sense, I am younger than I would like to be. And finally, there is physical age. Everything here depends on the correct use of the body. The human organism is an apparatus that is amenable to endless improvement. The wear and tear is more than made up for by acquired skills. I assure you that now I have much better control of my body than I did in my youth.’  (Kindle Locations 5629-5638).

LOL whether you find this convincing may well depend on your age and your gender…

This Fandorin, who has established himself in the previous novels of the series as a sleuth every bit as good as Sherlock Holmes and with a moustache at least as impressive as Poirot’s, is distracted both by love and by a string of red herrings – which will either confuse readers too, or lead to them performing a readerly equivalent of an audience at a melodrama, yelling at the bemused principal to alert him to the presence of the villain hiding in clear view.

Does All the World’s a Stage rescue this genre from its ‘lowbrow reputation’?  There are lots of allusions to classic literature, from Pushkin to Chekhov and Tolstoy, but I think that perhaps it’s the commentary about society and politics that give the novel a sharper edge.  Fandorin occasionally expresses opinions that may apply just as much in modern Russia as they did in Tsarist Russia:

… ‘The “classic member of the intelligentsia” is a b-being who is harmful, even ruinous, for Russia! The estate of the intelligentsia might seem likeable enough, but it possesses a fatal flaw, which was noted so accurately and mocked by Chekhov. A member of that estate is capable of bearing hardships with dignity, he is capable of maintaining his nobility in defeat. But he is absolutely incapable of winning in a battle with a boor or a blackguard, who are so numerous and so powerful here. (Kindle Locations 2027-2030).

‘Mark my words, if Russia is destroyed by anything, it will be exclusively by loutishness! A lout sits on another lout and drives a lout along! Nothing but louts from top to bottom.’ (Kindle Locations 2752-2753).

‘…In this country the success of any large-scale initiative requires support from above and from below. From the clouds up above …’ – Andrei Gordeevich pointed to the towers of the Kremlin, visible through the window at the end of the room – ‘… and from underground …’ – he jabbed his finger down towards the floor. ‘The powers that be permit you to do business. And nothing more than that. But if you want that business to make progress, you have to turn to the unofficial power. In our state, which is so clumsy and inconvenient for business, the unofficial power helps to lubricate the rusty gearwheels and trim the rough edges.’ (Kindle Locations 3538-3543).

As Erast Petrovich listened, he wondered why, here in Russia, in all ages, the most important requirement for the success of any venture was ‘good relations’. It must be because the Russians regarded laws as irritating, arbitrary obstructions invented by a certain hostile power in its own interests. And that hostile power was called ‘the state’. There was never anything rational or benevolent in the actions of the state. It was an immense, sprawling, vicious monster. The only salvation was that it was also half-blind and rather stupid, and every one of its greedy gullets could be fed. Without that, it would be absolutely impossible to live in Russia. Establish good relations with the gaping, toothy maw closest to you and do whatever you like. Only don’t forget to fling chunks of meat into it on time. That was the way things had been under the Rurikoviches, that was how things were under the Romanovs, and that was how things would remain until relations between the general population and the state changed fundamentally. (Kindle Locations 3561-3568).

Well, I found the plot mildly diverting (but I did get bored in places), and the political commentary was mildly interesting (but not especially new to me).  At the end of the day it’s a detective story with a string of murders, and that’s just not my favourite kind of book to read.

So, on to my next book for the EBDR Translation Prize shortlist –  as soon as it arrives from overseas!

PS With just one flaw (‘dual’ instead of ‘duel’, which the editor should have fixed) I thought the translation was fluent and highly readable.

BTW I’ve discovered via Goodreads that the Kindle edition lacks illustrations which enhance the book, which is a pity because the cover illustration is gorgeous.

Author: Boris Akunin
Title: All the World’s a Stage (Erast Fandorin Mysteries) (Весь мир театр)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2017, first published 2009
ASIN: B01MG7NZ1Q
Purchased for the Kindle from You Know Who.


Responses

  1. Bakunin was such a famous Russian anarchist that I wonder if Boris Akunin is the author’s real name.

    • It sounded likely, so I Googled Akunin, and learned a bit about him from Wikipedia. Someone should make a film of his life… I’d love to know how he escaped from a workcamp in Siberia!
      But the answer is cleverer than suspected: I Googled Boris Akunin too, (which I should have done before) and it turns out that his real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, he’s an expert on Japanese literature, and he’s “editor-in-chief of the 20-volume Anthology of Japanese Literature”. And here’s where it gets interesting and your insight comes into play: WP says that
      “Akunin” (悪人) is a Japanese word that translates loosely to “villain”. In his novel The Diamond Chariot, the author redefines an “akunin” as one who creates his own rules.
      Voila!

      • Voilà indeed! Isn’t it fun when research works out like that.

  2. Very interesting, and I wasn’t aware of all the material behind the books, but I’m pleased to hear you say what you do about it. I should be a prime candidate to love Akunin’s books, but I tried one or two of the early ones and really struggled. I just wasn’t getting anything out of them and it may be that the only way to really get the nuances and subtexts is in the original language (which I can’t do, of course). I often thought I should give them another go but actually I don’t think I will now…..

    • Well, if you change your mind, this might be the one to read because its translator has been nominated for the prize and it’s a very good translation indeed:)

  3. I’ve enjoyed the previous Fandorin books – particularly because of the variety – but I found this one less interesting (I suppose that’s a by-product of the different styles). There is quite a gap between this and the previous translation which makes me suspect that the publishers may have known it wasn’t going to work so well in the UK.
    Did you read the play at the end?

  4. Hi Grant, thanks for stopping by:)
    I think it’s interesting that it’s this book, which is not his best by some accounts not just yours, which is nominated for the translation prize. The Russian reader from Goodreads who I quote above says it’s a very beautiful in Russian
    Yes… that play. That was weird. I felt cheated somehow, as if I’d got to the end of the book, and then was expected to an addendum in a style I don’t like… I don’t like reading plays, I like seeing them!
    So yes, while I read it, I did scamper over bits of it, and failed to make sense of it and why it was there.

  5. […] All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin (translated by Andrew Bromfield from Russian, Weidenfeld & Nicolson), see my review […]


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