This is the first installment of The Turkish Gambit portion of “Rereading Akunin “. For the introduction to the series, and subsequent installments, go here.
The Turkish Gambit
In which Boris Akunin Trolls Feminists
All right, that’s not the actual chapter title. The real title is “In which a progressive’s woman finds herself in a quite desperate situation.” Both Akunin’s and my version are accurate; I would simply add that the “desperate situation” in which Varvara Suvorova finds herself is that she is being written by Boris Akunin.
The Turkish Gambit is the second of Akunin’s novels about Erast Fandorin, but the detective only appears on the last page of the first chapter. This chapter is all about Varya, the progressive woman mentioned in its title. It is 1877, and Varya is in Bulgaria in order to join Pyotr, her comrade/fiancé serving in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War.
Like all the Fandorin novels, this one is a period piece, so perhaps we could chalk up Varya’s characterization to Akunin’s devotion to historical detail. When the “progressive woman” (initially simply called a “nigilistka,” or female nihilist) becomes a character type in the middle of the nineteenth century, she is usually a figure of fun. Think of Avdotya Nikitichna Kukshina from Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 Fathers and Children. Kukshina Is a free-thinking, emancipated woman, which means that she is ugly, dresses poorly, smokes, and drinks to excess. It should come as no surprise, then, that when Nikolai Chernyshevsky pens a radical novelistic rebuttal the following year (What Is to Be Done?), he frames the story around a young female radical who is held up for admiration rather than ridicule.
The problem, though, is that where Turgenev was a brilliant writer, Chernyshevsky was…. Chernyshevsky. He may have influenced generations of radical youth with his portraits of Vera Pavlovna, Kirsanov, Lopukhov, and Rakhmetov, but he described them in set pieces including a moment when Vera Pavlovna’s fantasy of throwing herself out a window starts to resemble a moment in Woody Allen’s Love and Death, and his capacity for depicting pleasure was limited to scenes of frolicking and tickle fights. The ridiculous emancipated woman with terrible taste was invented by a writer whose taste was exquisite (Turgenev), while the admirable progressive woman was popularized by an author whose name has become a synonym for bad writing. Which begs the question: what is to be done?
Actually, there are plenty of options, but they would require taking women seriously, and that’s not something this novel wants to do. Instead, the novel starts off on a note of lighthearted chauvinism and bonhomie:
“According to St. Augustine, woman is a frail and fickle creature, and the great obscurantist and misogynist was right a thousand times over— at least with regard to a certain individual by the name of Varvara Suvorova.”
This is a clever narrative trick, invoking a classic while simultaneously calling him an “obscurantist and misogynist” (words more likely to be uttered by Varya herself than the narrator), and abdicating responsibility for assessing the statement’s validity by using Varya herself as the excuse. How can we take women serious when we’re dealing with someone as ridiculous as Varya?
Well, because, not to put to fine a point on it, Varya was a choice. If she is frail and fickle, it is not because nature made her that away, but because Akunin did. Varya is a collection of clichés with which a conservative nineteenth-century reader would have felt a comfortable familiarity.
Her description may as well be straight out of an anti-nihilist novel: “The brown eyes of the lady with the cropped hair, who smoked papyrosas and refused on principle to allow her hand to be kissed, had very nearly set the army officers and staff functionaries bound for the theater of military operations at one another’s throats”
Her political views are silly and superficial: “If she could only pray— but progressive women didn’t pray.”
She doesn’t have the courage of her convictions. Training to be a midwife, she faints when dealing with a woman in labor.
She is easily swayed by radical fashion. Thus she and Petya resolve “to live like Vera Pavlovna and Lopukhov in Chernyshevski’s What Is to Be Done? They each had their own territory and the third room was reserved for one-to-one discussions and receiving guests.” Their arrangement is shown to be unnatural and untenable, with Petya wracked by jealousy when Varya is pursued by a famous writer.
The narrator flirts with portraying her point of view sympathetically:
“ If God created Adam first and Eve afterward, far from demonstrating that men were more important, it showed that women were more perfect. Man was the experimental prototype of the human being, the rough draft, while woman was the final, approved version, as revised and amended. Why, it was as clear as day! But for some reason the real and interesting side of life belonged exclusively to the men, and all the women did was have children and do embroidery, then have more children and do more embroidery. Why was there such injustice in the world? Because men were stronger. And that meant she had to be strong.”
But he immediately falls back on condescension: “And so little Varya had decided she was going to live her life differently. The United States already had the first woman doctor in Mary Jacobi and the first woman minister in Antoinette Blackwell, while life in Russia was still riddled with dodoism and patriarchical discipline. But never mind— just give her time.”
To get a full picture of this condescension, one has to read ahead, to moments such as her disgust at Fandorin’s neglecting to help her (a young lady) get up on her horse). But what is most perplexing about the whole phenomenon is that one might reasonably expect that the century or so between the time of the novel and its composition might have rendered a contemporary male writer, if not sympathetic, then at least resigned.
Most of the things Varya wants to do are things that Akunin’s female contemporaries might take on as a matter of course. A progressive Russian woman from 1877 is not exactly pursuing a radical feminist agenda. But it is as if the casual condescension towards contemporary feminists must, as a matter of course, be projected back in time, even if the radical woman’s goals are things that women take for granted now.
Apparently, Rule #1 here is: when in doubt, be patronizing.