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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Snowdrops - A.D. Miller It seems like initials rather than first names are a token for success in the English speaking literature. Let's think about J.R.R. Tolkien, P.G. Wodehouse, H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and, more recently, to J.K. Rowling.

This is probably what A.D. (Andrew Dylan? Annus Domini? Arkady Dandy?) Miller has thought while choosing his nom de plume: "If I do that, if I omit my birth names and replace them with capitol letters, then I have more chances of entering the pantheon of the successful novelists".

This expedient apparently worked when Mr Miller was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize with his first novel. At the end of the day, our A.D. was not the winner, but managed to get a handful of good reviews around, convincing even his politically correct colleagues at The Economist to praise him.

Much ado about nothing - as William Shakespeare would have said (out of his envy for not being christened W.J.R. Shakespeare)?
Quite likely, but let's not be too harsh with our A.D.

"Snowdrops" is, as many readers pointed out, a novel about Moscow. Mr Miller spent several years of his young life reporting from the Russian capital and got clearly ensnared by its seductive grim flamboyance.
The problem with this book is that what our A.D. saw and felt in Moscow appears only sporadically here with a bunch of good periods being blown away by one of the most impressive collection of cliches you could dream of.

What some gym obsessed (and probably drunk) reviewer at the Daily Mail called "like Graham Greene on steroids" should be read like "a minor Graham Greene on sex hormones". Honestly, the only similarity I can find here between the brilliant prose and subterranean tension of Greene and the dull sex-driven Muscovite life portrayed by Miller is the banality of the main protagonist.
A banality which is only apparent and subtle in Greene, but a block of reinforced concrete in Miller.

Nicholas "Kolya" Platt here is a pathetic odd person who pretends to be 38 years old (come on! he cannot be 38! not this guy!) and rummage through Moscow parvenu-infested night-clubs as a British kid on a school-trip being afraid that a teacher may scold him.
The literary expedient of having Nicholas writing to his fiancee back in England about his Russian adventures is awfully unrealistic and it seems like the same A.D. Miller forgot about it more than once while the story goes on.

The catalog of unfortunate choices made by our A.D. is pretty long for such a short book and includes a bunch of unnecessary English translations just like this selected gem:

"Normalno - he replied (Normal)".

Overall, Mr Miller desperately tries to convince us that he did the real thing. He lived in Moscow not only wrote about it and therefore he knows what "tak" and "spasibo" mean.
Wow! That's remarkable. Not really "normalno", isn't it?

Not too bad. Not too bad indeed.
If only our A.D. could have remembered that he is - or was - a journalist explaining, say, that "The Great Patriotic War" one of the characters refers to at some point is actually World War II as called by the Russians, I would have been less critical with him.
That and the way "Kolya" is mesmerized by discovering that the word "sister" could also mean "cousin" in Russian after nearly 4 years he spent in Moscow.
Wow! What a scoop. But after all, quoting gospodin Platt:

"I was on my way to being fluent, but my accent still gave me halfway through my first syllable".

Yes, of course, the accent.
But let's just report another shining example of Mr Miller's blatantly cheap style, the one in which Nicholas Platt meets the Russian doll he will fall "in love" (should read lust) with:

"Spasibo - said Masha. (Thank you). She took off the sunglasses.
She was wearing tight tight jeans tucked into knee-high brown leather boots, and a white blouse with one more button undone than there needed to be.
Over the blouse she had one of those funny Brezhnev-era autumn coats that Russian women without much money often wear. If you look at them closely they seem to be made out of carpet or beach towel with a cat-fur collar, but from a distance they make the girl in the coat look like the honey-trap in a Cold War thriller. She had a straight bony nose, pale skin and a long tawny hair, and with a bit more luck she might have been sitting beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in some hyper-priced restaurant called the Ducal Palace or the Hunting Lodge, eating black caviar and smiling indulgently at a nickel magnate or well-connected oil trader".

Now, wait a moment.
How many stereotypes you can count here?
Let's ignore the useless translation of a single word put in brackets as well as the Oxford comma and the evident fetishism for the hyphen (7 in 10 lines!). Let's just focus on the cliches.

The Russian girl looks like a bimbo, therefore she must be poor, therefore she has to wear a Brezhnev-era coat with sunglasses and those tight tight jeans and a half open blouse. But, being this Masha a poor girl she is also unlucky, therefore with a little bit of fortune she could have hooked the right pimp who must definitely be a nickel magnate or an oil trader and eats caviar. Oh really? Don't even tell me! Anna Chapman, c'est moi.
I'm afraid our A.D. only forgot about vodka, a Zhiguli, a dacha and a balalaika.
Ah no. Obviously all of this stuff is also included in "Snowdrops". Apart from the balalaika, quite surprisingly. Perhaps our man in Moscow doesn't like folk music.

To cut it short, this book doesn't have too much to say.
You may expect some action, but there is almost none. You may expect some sex and well, there is a little, but in a chilly voyeuristic fashion which looks like exhibitionism.
All in all, there are maybe three or four characters here who don't look like parodies, but they don't manage to rescue "Snowdrops" from dying down without a shake.