Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Putin and I

leave a comment »

About ten years ago, I wrote a conspiracy thriller set in the New York art world. The decision was largely a practical one—I had written but been unable to sell a long science fiction novel, and I switched to suspense mostly because I knew that it was in my wheelhouse. When I started, I didn’t have a plot in mind, and my initial approach was simply to read as widely as I could and assemble pieces that I thought might be useful. One was Marcel Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Another was the unexplained double suicide of the artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. And a third was a curious incident that took place two years earlier at Sotheby’s, in which an unknown bidder—with a Russian accent—paid a record amount for a portrait by Picasso, despite “the relentless and unsophisticated manner in which he waved his paddle.” That was how Russia entered the story, and while I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew that the Russia angle would let me get away with practically anything, because the truth was invariably stranger than fiction, and it was impossible to come up with any plot point that was more farfetched than actual events. As the backdrop for a conspiracy novel, it was perfect. In The Icon Thief, these elements were used mostly for atmosphere, but I did a deep dive into the intricacies of the secret services in the sequels, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire, complete with a rivalry between the civilian and military branches of Russian intelligence that in retrospect may have been one level of complexity too many. (My best source was The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, which I recommend highly to anyone looking for a historical perspective on recent developments. I’ve just started watching the first season of The Americans with my wife, and it’s clear that the show’s writing staff was reading it closely, too.)

At the time, my decision to focus on Russia was a matter of narrative convenience, and not because of any contemporary relevance that I thought it might have. (As the creator of The Americans has said: “People ask us how we were so prescient. We weren’t prescient. We were the opposite of prescient.”) In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he claimed to outline the chain of reasoning behind his poem “The Raven.” Here’s how he allegedly arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Critics often read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, but it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like a picture of a bullet being shot through an apple. It slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that normally occurs within seconds. Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages—the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is a way of saving space. You pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and for something else.

In the case of my novels, “Russia” itself is a word that calls up an entire world of intrigue, but there’s an even better one. Over two years ago, in a discussion of Eternal Empire, I wrote: “I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is ‘Putin.’ Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire.” It seemed to me that Putin’s name was the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller, allowing me to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. In utilizing a real political figure in a novel, I was following the example of Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle and gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later books. Ideally, this sets up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with obvious figures like Putin, working its way down through less familiar politicians or incidents, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where history leaves off and invention begins, especially as the novel shows its age. (I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence is based on fact, which is an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it used to enhance its own credibility.) In theory, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

As a result of my hunch about the subject’s potential, I spent five years of my life thinking about Putin and Russia, which was more than I ever intended. By the end, I was feeling burned out, so I closed Eternal Empire on a note of unwarranted optimism. The events of the novel were timed to coincide with a series of protests that took place toward the end of 2011, of which Ellen Barry wrote in the New York Times:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president twelve years ago…The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced…He is by far the country’s most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.

Even then, I knew that this was less of a turning point than it seemed, but I wanted my novel—which centers on the figure of a Russian dissident modeled on Mikhail Khodorkovsky—to arrive at some kind of closure. But I never imagined how timid these novels would seem one day, even if they were superficially prescient in other ways. (An important subplot in The Icon Thief describes the poisoning of a political enemy overseas using a nerve agent, which back then was safely in the realm of fiction.) Years ago, I wrote on this blog: “Nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.” It turns out that I was right. I’m proud of these three novels, but I haven’t gone back to read them in a long time. And I frankly don’t know if I ever can again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: