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Watching The Detectives: Popular Russian Crime Novelist Discusses His Craft

Novelist and essayist Boris Akunin: "The public role of writers and literature in Russian society has become minimal."
Boris Akunin is one of Russia's most popular crime fiction writers. His detective novels featuring investigator Erast Fandorin have won awards and critical acclaim at home and abroad. Bashir Ahmad Gwakh of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal spoke to Akunin about his work and also discussed the changes that have occurred in Russian literature in recent decades.

RFE/RL: The Soviet Union was involved in Afghanistan for a long time. Did the Afghan war have an impact on Russian literature?

Boris Akunin: Yes, definitely. And not only on literature, but on the country in general. I think it was one of the decisive steps which ruined the USSR and of course it left a very deep scar on the Soviet national mentality. There have been a lot of works of fiction, non-fiction, and cinema dedicated to this painful issue.

RFE/RL: In what different ways was the war portrayed?

Akunin: We have both kinds of descriptions of the war in our literature and in our cinema. Cinema, of course, tends to be more mass-culture-oriented than literature. Of course, we do have Hollywood-style epics which represent Russian soldiers as heroes and Afghan guerillas as the bad guys. But I wouldn’t call it mainstream. For Russia and for Russian art this is mainly a tragic episode in our history. We have a lot of works in which the war is described as it was -- cruel and dirty.

RFE/RL: And do you think the fall of communism changed Russian literature?

Akunin: Yes, it has changed in every possible way. First of all, now literature -- fiction anyway -- is free of censorship. So, any writer can write what he or she wants to write. Secondly, in the Soviet Union, such a thing as a book market didn’t exist. It was a planned economy, so all the print runs of every book were planned years ahead. If a book sold well, it didn’t mean anything. Now of course we are living in a capitalist society so bestsellers are bestsellers. The books that sell, [actually] do sell and [those] that do not sell, don't.

At the same time, the public role of writers and literature in Russian society has become minimal. A writer was a very important person back in the Soviet Union. Now a writer is either an entertainer who writes literature or an artist who writes for a highly qualified audience which would normally be small.

RFE/RL: Speaking about the present, crime fiction has become the most popular genre in Russia today. Why is this the case?

Akunin: There are many reasons for this. First, of course, is the fact that the genre didn't exist in the Soviet Union, which is important. So it was sort of new to the Russian public. Because in a highly ordered and a censored society like the Soviet Union, such a thing as interesting crime could not exist, at least, not in literature.
The contemporary detective novel in Europe is a bit entropic...It’s slower, it's more regulated, there's less passion, and there's less blood. And, of course, it shows.

So, all the detective stories which appeared [in Soviet times] tended to be dull. The cop was always a perfect guy. The criminal was always a bad guy. The cop always used the help of society to assist him in catching the criminal. It was very pitiful.

Now the genre has blossomed. And, of course, another important factor is that there is actually a lot of crime in Russia these days. So this is a theme that interests people. They see it on TV, they read about it in the newspapers, and they are motivated to read about it in novels as well.

RFE/RL: Your novels are mostly about the past -- about detectives working in previous eras. How do you make these works relevant for society today and for the younger generation?

Akunin: Very easily. Human nature does not change quickly and easily. The same sort of moral problems and dilemmas that existed one hundred years ago are still here and are not resolved. Besides, when I write historical detective fiction, the great Russian literature of the 19th century comes to my [aid]. It has this very charismatic flavor, this atmosphere which is such a pleasure to bathe in. And I love to write in this style and my readers love to be reminded of the influence of the Russian classics.

RFE/RL: Critics say your novels have less nudity, less fighting, and less brutality than most modern detective fiction. And yet, your novels are widely popular. Why is this?

Akunin: I should say that there are quite a lot of cruel scenes and violence in my novels. But the difference is that the good guy, my gentleman hero Erast Fandorin, behaves in a very handsome manner. He is a guy who embodies dignity and we lack that sort of personality in modern day Russia. That is why he is so attractive to readers.

RFE/RL: You mentioned Erast Fandorin. Where did you get the inspiration for him as the hero for your detective novels. Is he based on a real life character?

Akunin: Not really. I do not know any detective like him, not in Russian crime history anyway. And I used mostly literary heroes to create the formula of Erast Fandorin. There was a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him and a bit of James Bond. Then again there is a portion of heroes of Russian classical literature like Andrei Bolkonsky from War and Peace and like [characters from Mikhail] Bulgakov and from [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky. So there is a bit from everywhere and there is something that I devised and made by myself to bring this personality to life.
"I write differently as Grigory Chkhartishvili and as Boris Akunin...there are two types of texts there."

RFE/RL: What is the main difference between Russian and Western crime fiction? Is there any difference? If so, how would you characterize it?

Akunin: It depends on which national literature we talk about. There are a lot of differences. There is this phenomenon of the Scandinavian detective novel; then there is the British one, the American one, the French one. They are all different.

I would say that compared to this European school of the detective novel, the Russian detective novel tends to be more energetic. There is more action in it. The contemporary detective novel in Europe is a bit entropic. Of course the tempo of life is different for the West. It’s slower, it's more regulated, there's less passion, and there's less blood. And, of course, it [shows].

RFE/RL: Are you writing primarily for a Russian audience or are you also trying to reach a global market? How should writers approach this dilemma?

Akunin: It depends on the author. I write mainly for Russian readers because I have common cultural baggage with them. We had the same books as kids; we have the same allusions and associations. This helps me a lot.

At the same time, I am by education a Japan specialist and have spent a lot of time in Japan and know that country quite well. That is why there are a lot of Japanese characters in my novels.

I also spend a lot of time in France and I think I am getting familiar with the culture and the people. This is why I have started to introduce Frenchmen as well. I only like to describe things that I know quite well. Otherwise it wouldn't work.

RFE/RL: Why do you use the pen name, Boris Akunin, rather than your given name, Grigory Chkhartishvili?

Akunin: Because I have been writing literary texts for many years under my own name, and they belong to a different category of literature -- essays and nonfiction -- I do not want my readers to mix up those two genres.

I write differently as Grigory Chkhartishvili and as Boris Akunin. In fact, I have published one book under both names -- Chkhartishvili and Akunin - because there are two types of texts there, essays and novellas. The novellas are written by Boris Akunin and the essays by Grigory Chkhartishvili. If you read this book you would immediately notice the difference in style.

-- Fatima Saydulkhadzhieva of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report