Since the days of Charles Dickens, at least, the authors of the best popular fiction have combined carefully-plotted stories with meticulously described portraits of multileveled societies. From Bleak House (1852-1853) to John Le Carré to Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man (1971), the depiction of the milieu through which the characters are swept by the convolutions of the plot has been as important as the plot itself. Just as the reader comes to know intimately the fog-shrouded London of Inspector Bucket and Lady Dedlock, so the Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer is exposed in all of its sun-spangled seediness. Now, the Moscow of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park can be added to the list of cities that have become characters in literary thrillers. An important novel on many levels, Gorky Park provides the reader with a variety of satisfactions, not least of which is the rich texture and vitality of its representation of modern Moscow and Russian society.
From the first page, the narrative captures the reader with its evocation of a strange and menacing world, even as it tantalizingly presents the first clues of a long and complicated mystery plot. Gorky Park is a well-constructed thriller, a first class “whodunit,” but it is much more than that. Through its characters and its depiction of the strata of contemporary Russian society, it transcends the limitations of the thriller genre, and suggests some basic truths about human beings, about human society, and about the survival of the one in the other.
Survival is really the subject of Gorky Park. Under any circumstances, survival is not easy in today’s Russia, but with the added threats of unexplained violence and the victimization of the apparently innocent, it becomes part of a cosmic game, a goal apparently always just out of reach. When survival becomes a matter of luck, a question more of chance than of skill or fairness, then the rules for existence change, and life assumes an existential dread that colors every action, every dream, every waking moment. This is the kind of world that Smith reveals in Gorky Park. Men and women struggle to achieve a meaning to their lives, but their efforts seem half-hearted, as if they know in advance that their efforts are hopeless. Like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, they struggle for victories that must, by their nature, be short-lived.
Arkady Renko, Chief Homicide Investigator of the Moscow Town Prosecutor’s office, has no illusions either about his own existence or about life in the Soviet Union. Too intelligent to fall for the official doublethink of the government, too philosophical to accept orders unquestioningly, too curious to close his eyes to obvious lies, and too honest not to seek out the truth, his whole life is a struggle to survive not on society’s terms, but on his own terms. His victories are small and partial, and never lasting, but they are all he has to keep from madness or suicide. He has learned to accommodate himself, accepting these small, temporary victories. Then he becomes involved in a situation that exposes him to the larger challenges which have always lurked behind the smaller battles of his life. Suddenly, Renko is forced to make choices that he has until then carefully avoided making; he must confront the demons in his own personality and either turn them outward, and use them to find victory over the forces that are seeking to destroy him, or let him do the job for those external forces.
Life in a society as highly structured as that of the Soviet Union must inevitably become a series of confrontations. These can range from the petty (such as the machinations involved in acquiring a new electric washing machine) to the vital (including the daily struggle to obtain food and clothing and shelter in a land of constant shortages where bribery is a way of life). The way to succeed in this world is to play the game, which on an important level means join the Party, don’t rock the boat, accept the status quo, make “connections” and learn to use those connections. For the individual to whom this game-playing is revolting, such a society must provide few options. Essentially, all one can do is join the existing game or abandon all efforts to play any sort of game, at all. This is the question that Arkady has been skillfully avoiding for many years. Now, caught up in a storm of violence both mental and physical, he must confront this choice and, finally, make a decision.
His decision, while stimulated by specific events in the story, actually is not a spur-of-the-moment choice, but one based on a lifetime of conflict with the system in which he has found himself immersed. He never has been at ease with the bureaucracy or its rationalizations for its actions. He has refused to believe lies, refused to accept values imposed by others, refused to completely sell himself to the system. Although he has compromised in order to survive,...
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