One of the saddest legacies of the Cold War era is a wealth of cliche-ridden books about Russia whose authors exploit every sad stereotype about FSU countries in order to sell their books. I am horrified by Brent Ghelfi’s Volk’s Shadow whereas N. loves it. Oddly enough, both of us agree entirely on the quality of Ghelfi’s writing, but our final interpretations differ drastically. Below I am going to elaborate on how this author’s writing method works. Attention: ALL quoted lines (“ ”) are taken from Ghelfi.
First, the author relies on a list of words to bring lots of Russian flavor to his creation:
MATRYOSHKA – a wooden nesting doll. A compulsory attribute of all Russian homes which is as sacred to a Russian as the American flag to a U.S. citizen. When Russians are unhappy about the state policy, they burn MATRYOSHKAS, not flags.
KONTRACTNIK – any non-conscript soldier in the Russian army, typically a corporal or a sergeant. They can be identified by “bandanas, wraparound sunglasses, camouflage jackets with the sleeves ripped off, and tattooed prison muscles”. KONTRACTNIKS are primary targets for CHECHENS.
KINZHAL – a straight dagger
CHECHEN – a rough, ferocious highlander (but not nearly as hot as Duncan McLeod) armed with KINZHAL
ZINDAN – a Chechen mud pit, an instrument of torture for KONTRACTNIKS. However, it also serves as an educational institution to teach “philosophy, religion, global politics” to the most gifted POWs.
CALL OF DUTY, the only non-Russian term in the list. It’s a shooter video game, probably played by Ghelfi’s kids, if not himself. The author apparently uses it to look up different weapons (MP5, Uzi, etc) to arm his characters. Then he makes them “fight to the last breath”, which is a signature cry of Russian Spetznaz (special force) in the game.
MIGALKA – a blue flashing light that can be placed on a car roof.
CHINOVNIK / APPARATCHIK – a ranked Russian official, typically corrupt. However, his corruption is not nearly as annoying to the Russian populace as his abuse of MIGALKA.
And then we come to the most important terms that organize the entire novel:
VODKA – a prime cause of everything that happens in Russia.
PALENKA – a low-quality, often poisonous VODKA produced in illegal distilleries which is favored by the protagonist. Apparently, it helps him to blend in with the atmosphere of “Moscow’s toxic violence”.
CRUDE OIL – a raw material that, on the one hand, is an indispensible source of energy for the West Europe, and on the other, a crucial ingredient for PALENKA. Correspondingly, whoever has oil controls all what happens in Russia and well beyond its borders (see PUTIN).
PUTIN – the main APPARATCHIK in Russia who “has earned a reputation for being everywhere at once, straddling the ocean, filling the sky, just like Stalin”. PUTIN and his downsized, temporary incarnation (called MEDVEDEV) seized control over Russian oil companies. In doing so, PUTIN jailed KHODORKOVSKY, an oil tycoon, who, according to his words, was only guilty of one thing that all Russians used to do in mid-1990s: getting rich or die trying.
Step two of creating a novel based in Russia that American readers will like: make up a ludicrously stupid plot and spice it up with the words from the list above. See all those MATRYOSHKAS, BABUSHKAS selling PALENKA, and APPARATCHIKS with MIGALKAS? Now only an idiot could doubt we are in Russia, right?
Then comes the final, crucial ingredient: make sure the whole book is bound with at least one gruesome, exquisitely nauseating cliché on every page. The characters dwell in buildings “made of steel, brick, and mortar laced with blood”. When they want to conceal something, they hide (figuratively, of course) behind “wall of lies sealed with the mortar of half-truths”. A character’s “granite features” and “icy gaze” signify that he means very (very) serious business. When a female is consumed by “the flame of passion”, her eyes catch “smoldering fire”. A male gangster, on the other hand, has eyes that are “violent under bushy brows, roiling like the stormy Caspian Sea at the hard edge of land in his hometown of Baku”.
Depending on whom they are dealing with, the characters exchange either “sticky embraces” or “crushing grips.” When they go outside, the weather is either “steaming hot” or “bone-chilling cold”. Mind you, not all people in the book are evil: for instance, the main female character “has fulfilled the promise suggested by the noblest moments of her youth”.
My husband is a man of refined literary taste who truly believes that Ghelfi does all of that on purpose: laughable plot, cardboard characters, and the language that can’t possibly pass for English. I agree: if you recognize and love the works of kitsch art, you will enjoy Ghelfi tremendously. Unfortunately, my sense of humor does not stretch that far because I am to endure this kind of writing style when grading the numerous essays of my students. For me, reading Ghelfi is like trying to “hold back an ocean of raw sewage with my bare hands”.