Monday, July 11, 2005

Martin Cruz Smith: Wolves Eat Dogs

Now this is a novel. It isn't perfect, but it is, so to speak, a wolf of a novel. It is powerful. It snarls. And it bites. Compared with Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs, Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days is a just a pampered French poodle. There just ain't no comparison at all.

Martin Cruz Smith seems to be a private sort of a man. Biographical details are sparse. He seems, officially, to have begun writing in 1970. But that was under his own name. I had the very definite memory that he had written a substantial number of down-market books under other names, and through Google I was able to find some evidence.

Simon Quinn is apparently one of Smith's early pen-names. Smith also seems to have churned out at least a couple of books in the Nick Carter series. In any event, my point is that he learnt his trade by producing several (I suspect a lot of) books for the pulp-fiction market. Not as many as Charles Whiting, whom we discussed the other day, but enough to have learnt his trade the hard way.

And that is important. What it means is that Smith is not one of your arty-farty, three lines of tortured genius a day crap artists. This man can write.

Wolves Eat Dogs is another in the series featuring the Russian investigator Arkady Renko. The fifth, by my count. And if you haven't read them already you should start with Gorky Park and go on from there.

Wolves is mainly about Chernobyl. Who killed who and why is almost a sideshow. Chernobyl is the main exhibit. I assume you know about Chernobyl, but if you don't then you can find some rather guarded and carefully phrased information here.

Basically, what happened at Chernobyl was that the Russians had a nuclear power station running full blast. And everything was OK until they did something silly. And then they panicked. And in those days no one could wipe their arse without permission from Moscow. And no one wanted to tell Moscow the truth. And so massive amounts of radioactivity spewed out in an invisible cloud which spread the most virulent poison all over the land. The wind picked it up and blew it... well, pretty much all over the whole world, actually.

Today there is a Zone of Exclusion all around Chernobyl. And it is here that Arkady Renko goes to investigate a couple of mysterious deaths. And that's about all you need to know really. In passing, Smith provides what is, I hope, a fictional explanation of how the Chernobyl catastrophe came about. But it sounds pretty convincing to me.

Smith's writing style is slightly disjointed in places. But at his best he generates that hypnotic quality which only the finest writers have: a quality which is almost universally missing in those writers who are most praised for their wonderful style by the literary powers that be.

Whereas Cunningham strives for significance, and fails miserably to achieve it, Smith would never worry his head about any such thing; but despite that he produces a novel which generates a great deal of thought. No one in the UK likes to mention it -- and especially not during the recent election -- but the fact seems to be that nuclear power is the UK's best (and perhaps only) option for electricity generation in the near future. So that alone makes the whole topic of Chernobyl one which bears thinking about. Smith, in short, could out-signify Cunningham with one hand tied behind his back.

If you pick up this book in a shop, and want a taster, try page 169 onwards. Here Arkady is invited to dinner in the home of an old peasant couple who have returned to live in the exclusion zone, despite the radiation, because it is where they grew up and where they want to die.

The scene is wonderfully evocative, in passing, of the communist mentality. One of the characters describes what happened in the control room of Reactor Four on the night of 26 April 1986. And here, as through the rest of the book, there is a marvellous streak of black humour. Given a mere fifty thousand years or so, the effects of the mistakes made on that night may eventually dissipate, and the area around Chernobyl may return to normal.

Smith has given various interviews about his research trip to Chernobyl. One was in the Observer.

It is worth mentioning in passing that this is a very well designed book (UK edition; can't speak for the US). I like the layout on the page, and, as I have mentioned before, I feel that this has a strong, if unconscious, effect on the reader's enjoyment.

If I was a religious man I would go down on my knees and thank God for classy commercial writers like Martin Cruz Smith. If they didn't exist, I would be forced to consume a diet of the best that the literati can offer. And on the whole I think I'd rather shoot myself.

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