This is the final installment of the Pelagia and the White Bulldog portion of “Rereading Akunin .’ For the introduction to the series, and subsequent installments, go here.
Now that Pelagia has survived her ordeal, the novel takes a sharp turn towards resolving the plot at all cost. This is why I’m covering the last three chapters in one post, because, despite the relatively calm start with Pelagia recovering in Mitrofanii’s bed in Chapter 10, the shift is jarring. Of all of the Akunin novels I’ve (re-)examined so far, Pelagia and the White Bulldog has the most frustrating pacing.
This may have to do with the nature of the (slobbering, inbred) beast. Moving from convents to drawing rooms to murders to courtrooms is not a recipe for consistency. And let’s not forget the traditional importance of the drawing room in a certain type of mystery: we should not be all that surprised by scenes of the assembled characters listening to someone methodically explain everything that has just happened.
Yet I have to confess that I still find the pacing unsatisfying. Which leads me to two possible conclusions (besides the obvious one, that this is my problem and I should just deal with it):
- Even though Akunin had already written his first three Fandorin novels, this was still early in his career, and the switch to a completely different setting and set of characters contributed to an overall uneven narrative.
- Deliberate or not, this unevenness is thematically appropriate to Akunin’s move from the capital to the provinces. In the middle of nowhere, even when everything is happening (multiple murders, religious persecutions, idiosyncratic dog-breeding), we can’t shake off the intermittent feeling that nothing is happening at all.
The lingering shame of provincialism is even deployed by Bubentsov’s defense attorney in Chapter 11. Matvei Bentsionovich has just concluded a brilliant, stirring speech about the accused crimes, only to have Gurii Samsonovich (who has come all the way form the capital, of course), dismiss it in a particularly humiliating fashion:
I saw, gentlemen, that this speech, unfortunately, influenced you. But it was constructed entirely on cheap effects. The lack of evidence was concealed by high-flown style and conjectures with nothing to back them up. I have no wish to offend anyone, but this was an example of provincial oratory at its very worst. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, grandiloquence of this sort passed out of fashion a long time ago. There our prosecutor would simply be hissed at, exactly what poor acting deserves.
Stinging words, but it’s really just the courtroom equivalent of informing a nineteenth-century provincial woman that her dress has been out of fashion in St. Petersburg for three years now. It’s a low blow, and it lands hard.
Dead Prisoner from the Caucasus
Personally, I welcomed it, because it was a rare moment in the novel’s wrap up that wasn’t devoted to the increasingly complex resolution of an already complex plot. One of the last few chapters’ high points is also (deliberately) one of their low points: the competitive Orientalizing of Bubentsov’s Circassian servant Murad Djuraev.
Djuraev fit just about every nineteenth-century Russian stereotype about a man from the Caucasus: hot-headed, prone to drunken violence, and fiercely loyal to his master. But he also had an even more important characteristic for the purposes of the defense attorney: he was dead before the trial began. Gurii Samsonovich turns him into the fall guy for every crime of which his client is accused, and bases his argument almost entirely on Djuraev’s ethnic identity. “The murderer in every case was Murad Djuraev, it is absolutely clear. To a man like Djuraev, slitting the throat of the merchant and his son would have meant nothing.”
If we credit the defense attorney with more foresight than he initially seems to have, he has set a trap for Matvei Benstsionovich:
An ignorant, benighted Caucasian could not have worked out such a cunning plot by himself,” Berdichevsky began anxiously. “And he was hardly likely to have understood the subtleties of photographic art. He not only tore up the photographs, but also smashed the plates.
Gurii Samsonovich is ready with the counter-attack:
And in addition, Mr. Prosecutor, I should like to protest in the most vigorous terms against the revolting contempt for other nationalities implied by your words. ‘An ignorant, benighted Caucasian.’ You make it sound as if he were not entirely human. And yet he was very human indeed, only with different traditions and beliefs, and with his own ideas of honor, far stricter than ours. It is a great pity that the police killed Djuraev. I would have gladly argued in his defense. We always measure everyone with our own yardstick, but Russians are not the only people in this world.
He’s not wrong, but it’s the height of cynicism, given that he was using virtually the same tropes to argue that Djuraev was guilty. This part of the trial scene is reminiscent of the Fandorin novel Akunin published at roughly the same time: Murder on the Leviathan, in which various suspects guilty or innocence is debated according to national characteristics as much as individual circumstances. In each case, I would argue that Akunin knows what he is doing. It’s all the more obvious in this case: do we really think the ethnic Georgian Grigorii Ckhartishvili is happily endorsing Caucasian stereotypes without any irony whatsoever?
Evil vs. Crime
Djuraev, of course, is not guilty. In a strange turn of events, Matvei Bentsionovich calls Bishop Mitrofanii to the stand, and the Judge, inexplicably, allows it. Where, in the previous colloquy, Djuraev’s guilt or innocence were framed entirely in terms of ethnicity, Mitrofanii, too, prefers the abstract to the specific in order to start making his case. His approach, though, is metaphysical:
Do you know what a disaster befell our province? Evil came to us. And we who live here have all felt it— some sooner and some later. Your defendant is not only an evil man, he is a servant of evil. His entire life, his entire behavior, testify to that. And a dangerous servant, because he is intelligent, cunning, resourceful, bold, and handsome. Yes, yes, handsome. The Evil One has endowed him with a mellifluous tongue, an entrancing voice, and the power to subdue the weak with many other gifts.
Fortunately for the prosecution, Mitrofanii doesn’t stop there, moving on to much more cogent arguments supporting his thesis. Suddenly Bubentsov’s lackey, Spasyonny, interrupts the proceedings to declare his master guilty, and confess his own unwilling involvement. Spasyonny and Bubentsov come to blows, at which point Bubentsov’s fate would appear to be sealed.
Except that now Pelagia volunteers to take the stand, whereupon she takes apart Spasyonny’s story piece by piece. Her coup de grace is her story about being attacked by a mysterious assailant and stabbing him with knitting needles. If the police will subject Spasyonny to a physical examination, they will find the scars to prove his guilty.
There is something deliberately unsatisfying about all this. The murders have been solved, but a truly evil man is still free to cause misery throughout the country. Pelagia explains:
You are right, father, Bubentsov is an evildoer and the devil incarnate. Now he will go free and, although his synodical career is over, in his lifetime he will still work a great deal of all manner of evil. He has great strength. He will lick his wounds and rise again and once again begin sowing hatred and grief. But falsehood cannot be eradicated by means of falsehood!
Mitofanii is appropriately shamed:
Let the politicians look at the world through pieces of colored glass, but a pastor must not. The glass must be clear; it is even better if there is no glass at all. […] And you are also right when you say that evil cannot be eradicated with evil. In the place of one evil you simply establish another, even stronger. But Bubentsov’s evil is special. It does not attack the laws so much as people’s very souls. It is the church’s duty to be watchful for evil and to denounce it.
Pelagia gently objects:
“God should not be feared, He should be loved. And the church should not be feared, but loved. In general it is a sin for the church to mingle with earthly power.”
“How is it a sin?” asked Mitrofanii, more in surprise than anger. “How is Zavolzhsk any the worse because Anton Antonovich listens to me?”
We never get to hear Pelagia’s answer, because she is interrupted by an announcement of the jury’s decision.
Ending on such a note is surprising in terms of the novel itself, but consistent when it comes to Akunin’s general worldview.  Akunin established Zavolshsk as a Never-Neverland of harmony between the church and the local government, a place where the Bishop is caught for counsel not just because of his post, but because he is wise.
But personal wisdom is not enough. If we compare Mitroifanii to Bubentsov (and to Chief Prosecutor Pobedin, who never actually appears in the story proper), we can, if we choose, focus on the conflict between good people and bad people (a focus Mitrofanii himself encourages on he stand). But this very conflict is an argument against personalism and in favor of institutions: Mitrofanii’s mixing of clerical and secular authority only works because he is Mitrofanii. Pobedin and Bubentsov are doing terrible things, because they are terrible people in positions of power.
We can always hope for more MItrofanii’s and fewer Pobedins, but the events of the noel do not encourage such optimism. Pobedin and Bubentsov exist despite Mitrofanii’s goodness. Therefore, what we need is a reliance on institutions, even when those institutions might prove incapable of rooting out a larger evil while sanctioning a specific crime.
Pelagia, in steering the criminal justice system towards Spasyonny and away from Bubentsov, is arguing in favor of liberal proceduralism rather than a focus on outcomes. This might not seem like a novel conclusion to Americans reading this book during the daily interval between NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, but it is radical when issued from the lips of a nun in nineteenth-century provincial (and statist) Russia. And maybe even in post-Soviet Russia one hundred years later.
Akunin’s work might not initially seem ideological, because it does not usually bring ideology to the fore, and the ideology that it does espouse is so taken for granted by Western readers that it may as well be invisible. His novels are not police procedurals by any stretch of the definition, but this one, at least, leads readers along with lurid murders and religious persecution, only to remind us that the rule of law must be maintained, no matter how appealing the alternative.
 Technically, the book ends on another note, but that’s because Akunin decided to use the last several pages as a lead-in to the next novel, introducing a plot that has nothing to do with Pelagia and the White Bulldog.