russian history

Review: Gorky Park

10/8/16: This review is a candidate for revision.

Reading Gorky Park was another misstep in my courtship with the international crime/espionage genre. I generally don’t like this type of book, but after reading the surprisingly good Child 44, I found myself searching for another Russia/USSR-oriented crime novel. I picked the wrong one.
I think the easiest and quickest way to express my thoughts on Gorky Park is to divide the review into strengths and weaknesses. I wanted the book to end as soon as possible, so why should that not extend to the review?

Strengths
The crime. The murder set up in the beginning of the story is very compelling. Three bodies are discovered frozen in the ice of Gorky Park with their faces and fingers missing. That in itself is chilling. I was actually invested in this plot thread and how Chief Investigator Arkady Renko would solve the homicide case when identification of the victims was difficult.
The writing. Smith’s prose is oft engaging and his portrayal of Soviet life (through a Western prism, of course) is detailed. It’s not a pretty picture, but the bleakness suits the subject matter and the setting. In an American city, a murder investigation might or might not be difficult, but in Smith’s Soviet Union it is practically impossible. Seemingly everywhere Renko turns, he is interfered with, attacked, or ignored. Moscow, the KGB, and the treachery throughout Soviet society are all clearly drawn. The book is also peppered with sociological commentary condemning both America and the Soviet Union as corrupt, and it’s fairly well done. However, as sometimes it seems that Smith didn’t really want this book to be a thriller, but rather commentary on the surface-level differences between the USSR and the US and the deeper similarities between the two when it came to the extent of rot within.

Weaknesses
The pacing. The pacing of Gorky Park was uneven and the majority of my reading was a slog. The book is dry and slow-moving in the first third, then hits a turning point and remains compelling until a climax where Renko has confronted the murderer and a death trap aimed at both him and his girlfriend. After the climax, the book limps on for another hundred pages before building to a second, unsatisfying ending. But by far the worst issue I have with the pacing is the lack of mystery in this mystery; the lack of thrill in this thriller. The bad guy (who conveniently wears a black hat) is identified and tagged even before the halfway mark, and thereafter pops up conveniently when the plot demands. Even the twist in the tale lies uncovered at the two-thirds stage. So the denouement really takes a long time, and by the end of it I was just looking to finish the book so I could move on to a new one. The story should have stopped at the obvious ending point, with maybe a single chapter to wrap things up.
The characterization. Some characters, like the protagonist Renko, are complex, while others are flatter than cardboard. And I did not care for any of them. Renko is calm, collected and principled to the point of being dull. He scornful of almost everyone and everything. Like many literary detectives before him, he is morose, arrogant, cynical and emotionally conflicted. His “gut feeling” approach to exposing corruption and dishonesty was a little implausible. Though it is clearly the author’s intention to make him straight-laced, I’m not sure if he wanted him to be unrealistic. But at least Renko succeeded in solving the murder…
Whereas I can somewhat appreciate Renko’s complexity, I cannot stand his “girlfriend”, the dissident Irina Asanova. She seems to have absolutely no redeeming qualities. She is shallow and self absorbed, thinking only of her escape to the US and the “freedom” that awaits her there. She is completely lacking in moral strength, as shown in the way she was able to defect. But, as is obligatory in these Cold War thrillers, she’s the love interest and is so gorgeous that even shabby clothes look good on her. Irina annoyed me so much that I actually found myself wishing something would happen to her – that she’d be betrayed or captured before she could make it to the US. Anything to get her out of the story. I was relieved when Renko chose to return to the USSR and leave her in the US.
The love story. While the dissolution of Renko’s marriage to his wife Zoya is credible and well told, his love affair with Irina is strained and hard to believe. At times it is clear they hate each other, but then there are gratuitous sex scenes. Yes, I know the relationship is meant to be complicated – in traditional Cold War-story fashion, they are using each other for their own ends – but the on-and-off again affection irked me.
The fluff. Part of the reason why Gorky Park seems to drag on and on may be that there is a lot unnecessary information. Characters like the NYPD cop Kirwill had backstories that didn’t seem to matter (in fact, I believe the story would’ve be fine without Kirwill) and there are even entire chapters devoted to things that don’t even help the story progress. Near the end of the book we get drawn-out sequences of Renko bonding with KGB major Pribluda over potato and mushroom gardening, or Renko thinking about his life with Irina in a New York hotel room.
The cliches. There are a ton of them: communism (this was written during the Cold War), corruption, the KGB, defection, harsh winter, spies, the obligatory sexy Russian love interest, betrayal, vodka. If you can think of something synonymous with Russia/USSR, it’s probably in here somewhere. I was waiting for the ushanka-wearing bear to show up, but he never did. Pity.

So, that was Gorky Park. Although I was drawn by its interesting premise, I was ultimately disappointed by its messy narrative that didn’t break much new ground. Perhaps this was wildly popular back in the day, but it hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps the problem lies with me, and I am not a member of the intended audience. Or perhaps it’s really just the writing.

There are seven other books in the series. I likely won’t be reading any of them.

★ ★

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. Pub. 2007 by Pan Books. Paperback, 559 pages. ISBN13: 9780330448888

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6 thoughts on “Review: Gorky Park

  1. Saying that the Gorky Park “hasn’t aged well” given that it was written during the Cold War is very politically correct way of saying that the book (whole series, actually) are consisting slightly less than entirely of thermo-nuclear klyukva and Russophobic clichés. For me there is no really any significant difference between the works of two Smiths – one, describing the horror and shittiness of “Stalin’s Russia” in his “modern” books, and another one, who is doing basically the same decades before.

    In essence, both books are more than mediocre plot and substance-wise, and they only got their “fame” (more like – notoriety) because they chose such “exotic” setting as the USSR (or the “Soviet Russia”, as the Westerners keep calling this state). It was a safe bet – USSR is exotic enough (read: alien) for the average Westerner to raise the interest by a notch. And because Russia at the same time is not “exotic enough”, no one is going to accuse the author of racism – it’s an ideal acceptable target! Finally, because from about 16 c. general knowledge about Russia and Russians in the West amounted basically to “that’s a big country to the East of our blessed Christendom/European Civilization/First World, somewhere between the land of dog-headed people and ‘Here be Dragons’ on Ye Olde Mappe”, you can write any kind of outlandish crap, the more shocking and gory the better, and no one will correct you. Besides – culturally superior Westerners have their prejudices and biases, and they want to keep them! Confirming them and pandering to the well established trope, that Russia has always been, is and will be “hell on the Earth” is a must in such works. For this one can forgive any weaknesses of the plot or cardboard characters.

    So, if the works of both Smiths are, clearly, lacking in the plot/characters/mystery department, could they be used as sources accurately portraying life in the Soviet Union in their respective time periods?

    […]

    Eh, no. Isn’t it obvious? What, you’d suggest next to study the history of the Jewish people by reading German illustrated (and how!) periodical “Der Stummer”?

    But, really, does it matter? People without previous knowledge about the topic (life and history of the USSR 1950-80s) will be fed what should be called by its name – Russophobic propaganda. Maybe people are not even ready to accept everything written here as the “truth” – but, given the lack of an alternative (i.e. the actual knowledge of the time) they are left only with this. Besides, if they are to read entire book without throwing it away in disgust, they must also accept the rules of the game, meaning that by internal logic of the novel all these improbable things must be true. And even after finishing the book this “knowledge” remains – because, once again, there is no alternative to it.

    As I said – Renko’s (what kind of the surname is that?!) saga has notoriety in Russia. In the blessed 90s during the reign of big democrat Boris Yeltsin a proverbial avalanche of western literature deluged the bookstores of Russia. No one had trouble publishing noted anti-Sovietists and Russophobes and printing their books by tens of thousands copies. The fact that “Child 44” was published in Russia as well only shows that despite absolutely soul-crushing oppression of Vlad Putin’s Bloody Regime voices of freedom and truth are not so easy to silence! And the fact that quite a large number of Russians upon reading these “revelatory” books about their own country felt, at first, cognitive dissonance, and then burning passionate hatred to the pricks who wrote them, is of no concern – they are vatniks and slaves of Putin, totally oblivious to the virtues of Euro-Atlantic Choice, all-powerful Invisible Hand of the Market and Living-Not-By-A-Lie! Positive lustrations and Camps of Liberty (established after the 6th fleet finally topples the Bloody Regime and appoints Mikhail Khodorkovsky as the chief gauleiter of the Liberated Occupied Russia) will deal with these remnants of unhandshakable breed.

    So, it’s a little surprise that the “Gorky Park” had been weighted, measured and found lacking by Russians long time ago. Still, the most facepalmy examples of “klyukvafication” are worth mentioning. Prepare to be enLYTTENed!

    1) Book eerily echoes “Child 44” by claiming that “in the USSR there were no crime!”. But with caveat (or, probably, as a sign of improvement compared to the time of Beria and Stalin) – no “heavy murders”.

    2) Most Russians and Russia speakers keked at the last name of major “Pribluda” – they know the meaning of it. Did the author know? But they also facepalm hard at the name “Fet” – I mean, giving your characters last names in honor of the old Russian writers? Okay, how many “Shakespears” and “Longfellows” lives around you?

    3)

    Everything concerning the dreaded KGB. Dear author tells us, that KGB would involve itself in ANY criminal case dealing with something foreign (which was nit true). How the book describes “secret KGB gulag for the dissidents” near Bogolyubovo and the way bloody “gebnya” kills poor inmates raises a lot of questions, about dietary (and smocking) habits of the author.

    KGB still uses pocket TK aka “Korovin’s pistol”, 1926 model. Why not Nagants of Revolutionary era?! And who else than American writer knows how the bloody KGB “wired” the hotel rooms? Of course, even here totalitarian Soviet are incompetent and manage to “bug” only half of rooms (as opposed to the gloriously democratic CIA!).

    Soviet KGB used their own mole in the attorney’s office of Moscow to get info about MVD. Full stop. Besides the sheer wrongness of that, we have a classic example of Westerner’s projection here – in this case of FBI’s and CIA’s “friendly” relations.

    4) The title of “commissar of militsiya” had been canceled way back in 1973. Persecutor Yamskoy had no authority to do what the book claims he could do, i.e. he had no power to supervise state institutions. There were no secret KGB banya beneath Detskiy Mir. You can’t see Ministry of Defense building and Donskoy monastery from the Gorky Park.

    5) And how can the book avoid to mention “innocent victims of repressions” – by, what, page 20? Also, obligatory suffering Soviet Jews, all (yes, all!) of whom were repressed by bloody maniac Stalin! Oh, and the article in the “Teacher’s paper” urging “Great Russians to procreate”, in order to withstand the onslaught of the “inorodsi” – I guess, the author is clearly projecting here what was more of the norm in the late 70’s Bastion of Freedom. For all its faults Soviet Union suppressed ALL kinds of nationalism, no matter which one – be it Ukrainian, Russian or Zionism. Such article has no base in reality. At the same, the book repeats the old mantra – “real criminals are not persecuted, only innocent dissidents are shot!”. Russia… Russia never changes! Well, at least such crap written about it.

    6) Book tries very hard to convince us, that Renko’s father is a bad guy. I’m not sorry to say, that I sympathize more with him (even by the little we are provided with) than with his son. Or the poor Nazis (of SS variety), who only came to the Totalitarian East in search of love and Lebensraum. And, no, “Russians” (meaning, probably, all Soviet People) did not believe that Yankees were taking scalps (although Q. Tarantino has a different opinion) or that the Germans were eating babies.Yes – rumours about the ears are not true. Even if triumphant dissidents, reigning supreme in Perestroika and Yeltsin era archives didn’t find anything like that, then who the hell is Mr. Smith?

    And how the book pictures Great Patriotic War! Well, like usual, but with added details. We learn, that Stalin was hiding in the bunker in 1941 (for the Westies there is no difference between Stalin and Hitler – like, at all). Also – an American in Leningrad? Seriously? And it was him, HIM, who was instrumental in the victory (judging by his description, he mixes up Leningrad and Stalingrad battles) there?.. Ah, screw you author! Screw you hard and sidewise!

    7) But what about the life of ordinary people? Renko’s wife Zoya is peeling an orange. In 1977. In January… We were repeatedly told about “deficit” and lack of about everything in the “Soviet Russia” by, well, about everyone. In this case this is surprisingly true – there was next to no chance of buying an orange during the winter months. Besides, with the family budget of only 400 rubles per month how could they afford to buy them in off-season? At the same time our dear author climes that live fish and fresh bird’s meat were NEVER sold in the USSR’s markets. All Soviet houses smell of cabbages (that’s why Russians are also know as “krauts”! Oh, wait…)

    Suddenly, Gorky Park is full of gypsies (how?!). In Soviet Russia people are still repressed for their noble ancestors (Mikhalkovs, both father and son, are incredibly surprised by such news!).
    In Renko’s USSR people stay in line for a washing machine for 10 months! And when they try to use it for the first time – it breaks! Feel superior, oh, Westerner! Btw – that’s what Western tourists say about “Russians” in the book. Quotes from the Russian version:

    “Видите ли, на взгляд человека с Запада, русские довольно уродливы. Ваши женщины немногим привлекательнее коров. Всё ваши долгие зимы, — философствовал Осборн. — Что может быть теплее семипудовой бабищи? Впрочем, вы, судя по вашей фамилии, украинец?”

    And

    “Ваше смирение — вот что придает вам очарование. Русский чувствует себя ниже всех, кроме араба. Или другого русского”

    As I said – acceptable targets! Should dear author say something like that about another “exotic” nation and its people, he’d be considered a racist.

    8) Irina Asanova (no, seriously – stealing surnames from the dead poets?!). Very truthful picture of liberast and dissident – they are still like that! Probably, based on some real emigrants who came to the Free West at that time. The émigrés are thoroughly handshakables.

    P.S. W. Smith visited USSR in 1973 and was shocked. He says this himself, that he wanted to “tell the story of the Soviet society” and that a detective mystery genre was just vehicle for that. Besides his own “extensive” knowledge, he decided to consult various émigrés, so that the book would look like more realistic. That’s what said émigrés have to say about the issue:

    “И вместе с моим шефом Юрой Гендлером мы как-то помогли одному американскому писателю в работе над романом на русскую тему. Звали писателя Билл Смит, и сочинял он классический pulp fiction – по четыре-пять книжек в год, все под разными именами. Когда он собрался писать книгу про Россию, ему понадобились консультации по поводу реалий советской жизни. В этом романе был, например, персонаж – генерал МВД, и в его домашнем кабинете к стене были прибиты отрезанные уши эсэсовцев. Мы Биллу сказали, что это невозможно. В крайнем случае такой персонаж может собирать марки или разводить аквариумных рыбок. Или вот еще штрих: главный герой книги работал в угрозыске. Он вставал в шесть часов утра и, перед тем как пойти на работу, выпивал стакан кофе с молоком и стакан водки. И еще, наверное, играл на балалайке? Я автору говорю: ну ладно водку в шесть утра, мало ли с кем не бывает, но вместе с кофе! Тут надо оставлять либо водку, либо кофе. А он недоумевает: «Почему? Ведь в России и то и другое за завтраком пьют, там же холодно…» Все эти нелепицы нам все равно устранить не удалось, некоторые так и остались в романе.”

    So, even anti-Soviet dissidents told him that he is full of crap. As we can see – author made all of his mistakes deliberately, and didn’t even considered to change the most outrageous parts when told how unrealistic they are. And that’s it! Because, ultimately, who cares about the truth?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had no idea the Arkady Renko series was published in Russia. Gorky Park predates Child 44 by almost 30 years and it’s not easy to find the Russian edition on Goodreads (where I get my reading material).
      -My guess is that Renko is a poor fake Russian name (see Russia Book Purgatory). Because back then, as long as the name ended in -ko/o, -ov, or -sky, you could pass it off as Russian.
      I’d love to hear what you’d have to say about books six and eight. Even the Goodreads reviewers think they’re bad.

      By the way, I’m currently wrapping up a read/review of Oleg Kashin’s Fardwor, Russia (Вперде роисся).

      Like

      • “I had no idea the Arkady Renko series was published in Russia. Gorky Park predates Child 44 by almost 30 years and it’s not easy to find the Russian edition on Goodreads (where I get my reading material).”

        Oh, yes! Everything written by Tom Clancy, Dale Brown and all other “friends of Russia” literally everywhere. I even found “Clear and presetn Danger” while I was in the Army. Despite loud screeches of our kreakls, such kind of literature is still published in This Country – no one bothers to ban it.

        “My guess is that Renko is a poor fake Russian name”

        More like “fake Ukrainian name” (that American businessman assumes he’s Ukrainian, anyway). Because even then Ukrainians were victimis of the Great Russian nationalism – true story, info 100500% valid!

        “I’d love to hear what you’d have to say about books six and eight. Even the Goodreads reviewers think they’re bad.”

        Eh, sorry – no help here. The “Gorky Park” became so known, memetic and notorious primarily because of its screen adaptation:

        [^Not a bad actor, btw]

        “I’d love to hear what you’d have to say about books six and eight. Even the Goodreads reviewers think they’re bad.”

        Okay! I only need to drink my coffe with vфdka, feeд my Яussian bear with the meat of innocent d$$idents and partition Poland. So… soonish!

        “By the way, I’m currently wrapping up a read/review of Oleg Kashin’s Fardwor, Russia (Вперде роисся).”

        […]
        […]

        Kashin?

        *Sigh*. J.T., you deserve weekly portion of milk за вредность.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! The truth is that the author did not give a damn about the reality. He’s got his own perception and tries to hammer it into readers’ heads despite obvious contradictions with facts and logic. I have only one explanation to this: fear. The author most probably belongs to the generation, which was crippled with fear of the “Soviet threat”. Only time will cure this illness.

      Like

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