This is the sixth installment of The Turkish Gambit portion of “Rereading Akunin” focusing on . For the introduction to the series, and subsequent installments, go here.
In which Varya
forfeits the name
of a respectable woman
In which Varya
sees the angel of death
We are back on Tolstoy territory in these two chapters. Chapters 7 and 8 each advance the war plot, but only Chapter 8 does so on the battlefield; Chapter 7 shows us, if not the war at home, then the war in Bucharest. The Turkish Gambit is not War and Peace, a fact for which anyone with a twenty-first-century attention span should be grateful. But these chapters come closer to a meditation on the folly of war than anything preceding them.
If the previous chapter used Varya’s awkward position in the camp as a metaphor for military siege, now we have moved to all-out slaughter. Chapter 7 sends Varya on a mission to Bucharst at Fandorin’s behest, in the hope that she can use her feminine wiles to dig up more dirt on the treacherous Lukan. But Lukan is not just a traitor; it turns out he’s also a pig. He quickly mistakes Varya’s presence for an open invitation to woo and bed her, and becomes belligerent when she resists. As a result, Paladin ends up dueling with Lukan to protect her honor. Contrary to everyone’s expectation, he wins, killing Lukan.
In Chapter 8, Varya is relieved to discover that her reputation, rather than being ruined, has only been strengthened by the version of events that made their way out of Bucharest. And in her absence, Fandorin has made an important discovery about Lukan’s activities: he betrayed the Russians for money that he received from a mysterious J. Again, I don’t remember the end of this novel, but one interaction that takes place in this chapter gives me a pretty good idea who J is. I will, however, refrain from spoiling the plot if I’m correct, or embarrassing myself if I’m not.
The rest of Chapter 8 deals with the long-awaited this and final assault on Plevna, in which some characters take part directly, while others watch from a hill, as if they were on a picnic. The exception is Fandorin, who refuses to be moved out of his habitual chair and distracted from the book he is reading. Varya is incensed:
“You’re an absolute monster! The fate of Russia hangs in the balance, thousands of people are dying, and he just sits there reading his book! It’s positively immoral!”
“And is it moral to sit and watch from a safe distance while people k-kill one another?”
It was a miracle. There was actually a trace of human feeling— irritation— in Erast Petrovich’s voice. “Thank you very k-kindly, I have already observed this spectacle and even p-participated in it. I did not like it. I prefer the company of T-Tacitus.” And he demonstratively stuck his nose back in his book.
Fandorin’s initial argument is rooted in the moral revulsion of a man who has observed the senselessness of war first-hand. But he also adds another objection, this time about the senselessness of observation itself:
“B-but honestly, Varvara Andreevna, what business do you have up there? First they’ll shoot their cannon for a long time, then they’ll run forward and there’ll be clouds of smoke so that you won’t be able to see anything, you’ll just hear some of them shouting ‘Hurrah!’ and others screaming in agony. Very interesting, I’m sure.”
Fandorin proves to be right on both counts. For the implied reader, the moral argument is so obvious as to be unremarkable, and Varya herself ends the novel feeling sick to her stomach. But the second point, about the inherently unsatisfying nature of war as spectacle, is more intriguing, because this time the reader is implicated. We, like Varya, are preparing ourselves for a battle scene. Whatever distaste we may have for war, we are likely to be at least a little stirred by the upcoming action.
In both chapters, however, Akunin denies Varya and the reader and kind of scophilic pleasure in violence and murder. When it comes to the battle, Fandorin is right: it is so distant, abstract, and obscured by smoke that the viewer sees next to nothing until it is all over, at which point the only spectacle is that of bloodied corpses. Varya may as well have been absent, which is the position in which she found herself in the previous chapter: the duel unfolded elsewhere.
In each of these chapters, we oscillate between post-Tolstoyan war/peace and the dramatic conventions of Greek tragedy (which relegated murders and suicide to off-stage action). We have the anxiety and regret surrounding the bloodshed, but the actual events are presented to us second-hand. Any frustration we may have is as shameful as Varya’s: what, exactly, were we hoping to see and why?
Faced with the challenge of tying to beat Tolstoy at his own game, Akunin swerves. What could be more clever?