Monday, July 06, 2009

book review - The Russian Interpreter - Michael Frayn

In many ways this novella leaves you feeling that there could have been more. Maybe there should have been but the reader is expected to fill in the blanks themselves.

When you sit back and think about it the Russian Interpreter is a tightly contained story with a small cast. Ultimately it is a love triangle but with three men instead of the usual two. But it is also about the cold war and the suspicion that westerners were held in at all times by a Communist Russian State. The problem with the last theme is that is feels too stereotypically done.

He idea of being followed, having to stick to the rules and arousing suspicion at the slightest default from them is a very old concept. Spy thrillers have made the KGB man lurking in the shadows with his Mac pulled up to his chin something with a cartoonish quality.

At the heart of this story there are two characters. Manning. a student studying for his PhD and Proctor-Gould some sort of cultural enterepeneur who has a passion for Russia.

The story starts with Proctor-Gould looking for Manning and in the time it takes for that to happen you are filled in on the students life. He is frustrated by his studies, bored with Russia to the extent he dreams of getting away and keeps friendships with his minder at the university Sasha and a friend Katya who seems to be a victim of the regime.

But this is clearly not Stalinist times as there are references to the country no longer having a cult of personality so you are left to assume it must be 1970s or 1980s because it is still clearly in the period of the cold war.

Manning starts working for Proctor-Gould and the student finds himself taken further away from his studies and he is introduced to the mysterious and flirtatious Raya who seduces Manning but only to get to Proctor-Gould. That leaves Manning, who works for as a translator in the odd position of having to translate love messages between the pair.

But Raya becomes a problem stealing the belongings from Proctor-Gould's hotel room and stumbling across a secret that involves the books that the English businessman hands out to Russian friends. In that collection of books there is something important enough for the businessman to resort to breaking and entering and to lie to his friend Manning.

As Raya is exposed as a thief and exits stage left the spotlight falls on the two friends and their relationships becomes clouded by the distrust that seems to pollute the Russian atmosphere. Manning winds up wondering just who can he trust. He is lied to by everyone and ends up being booted out of the country.

If there is a message as such from the book then it is around this idea of trust. When no one can be trusted and the price of backing the wrong horse is so high how can you survive in that kind of society? The problem is getting to that question involves giving to get through what often feels like a parody of a John le Carre type world.

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