The Big Issue – Nick Taussig, Five Crime Novels Everyone Should Read Before They Die

“A dazzling study of mental anguish and moral dilemma” Author Nick Taussig picks his essential crime fiction reads… The Big Issue, 7 August 2013

 

1. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Following the nihilistic student Raskolnikov, this is a dazzling study of mental anguish and moral dilemma.
2. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
We’ve all seen the trilogy of films but read the original novel, stunning in its detail of the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra.
3. Papillon, Henri Charrière
First published as a memoir – the tale of a French criminal escaping from countless penal colonies – it later transpired the author was prone to fantasy and that the book was a novel after all. But what a creation.
4. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré
The master espionage writer’s third novel was brilliant, not least because you feel the writer in every sinew of his hero, Leamas.
5. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Revel in the plot’s complexity and how Chandler leads you one way then the other. Yes, the double-cross extends to the reader also.
Nick Taussig’s latest novel, The Distinguished Assassin, is out now in hardback (Dissident, £12.99)

Independent – Five-minute memoir: Nick Taussig recalls a particularly trying trip across Russia

‘Mother Russia’ had long intrigued the author, but a journey across the country almost changed his mind… The Independent, 3 August 2013

A lifelong student of Russian literature – no one wrestles with the shadow self quite like a Russian novelist – it was perhaps inevitable that I would write a novel profoundly Russian in character, and that in order to write it I’d first have to travel Mother Russia’s length and breadth, from Moscow to Magadan.

This preoccupation, with the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, was likely inspired first, by my Slav background – my grandparents Central European Jewish émigrés – and second, by my Czech wife, who like so many had the great privilege of living under Soviet Communism, this quintessentially Russian creation.

For only the Russians were willing to submit themselves, for quite so long, to such a contemptible system, to live according to a single prescribed ideology, which claimed to offer a lifetime of perfect Communist harmony but actually provided the very opposite, a lifetime of hardship, frustration and dread. Why was this? The answer surely lay in a Russian pilgrimage, I concluded.

Moscow I could handle on my own, I thought, though for the rest of the journey, to Siberia and beyond, I’d need a fellow pilgrim, and crucially one who spoke more Russian than I did. I was very fortunate here. My father, a passionate historian, linguist and former director of foreign language services for BBC World Service, agreed to accompany me, and what proved most valuable, when the odyssey got difficult, which it did, was less his above credentials and more the man himself – his great, indefatigable, big-hearted, fiercely intelligent and slightly mad (but in the best possible way) spirit. Without him, Mother Russia would have got the better of me.

Things got tricky in Moscow after just three days, when I was suddenly, and rather unceremoniously, accosted by two men while taking pictures of the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB. Dressed in dark suits, the two men, whom it transpired were FSB (Federal Security Service) agents, had bounded towards me, and before I quite knew what was happening, took me by either arm, and without saying a word, marched me through an underpass. They held me outside a side entrance to the main building of the FSB, while a third man, having confiscated my passport, ran checks on me inside, sure that I was a British spy. The two agents, big, bolshy Slavs, said nothing, simply stood guard over me like two great Russian oaks. Only after 40 minutes, when their colleague returned, did they release me, having deleted every photo I’d taken, their parting words, “Fuck off!”, spoken in perfect English.

What I immediately gleaned from this experience is that the country remains insular, suspicious and authoritarian, having placed far too much power in the hands of its security services. Perhaps the Russian people are predisposed to live under strong authority, I wondered, and thus accept the terrible abuses of Putin’s authoritarianism, just as they did Soviet Communism.

The flight from Moscow to Magadan, some 5,500km east, was nine hours, yet this did not include the stopover in Bratsk, where we were herded like cattle into a dingy brown Soviet-era waiting room and instructed to wait, for how long it was unclear. After three hours, my father had the gall to ask an airline attendant, “When might we be on our way again, do you suppose?”. His question met with the curt, officious answer, “Soon!”. No more was offered. In Russia, the customer is not always right. We finally boarded again, and when we arrived in Magadan were exhausted, this compounded by the fact that we had flown across eight time zones but were still in the same country.

We had not booked a place to stay in advance – my failing – and so trawled Magadan’s few hotels in search of a spare room. None could accommodate us, but for the last. We were taken to our rooms – designated for non-Russians. My father smiled wryly, as both of us shuffled wearily into our respective abodes. He clearly foresaw what was in store, and well, we were not to be disappointed. The wallpaper was peeling, the plaster cracked, the furniture dilapidated, the bathtub Stalin-era – little more than a urinal – the room fit for a fugitive and no more. It was, like the airline attendant, Bratsk Airport, the two FSB agents and Moscow itself, grim, colourless and indifferent. I sat down on the poorly sprung bed, then heard my father howl with laughter. “The pilgrimage is complete. What better view of the troubled Russian soul than this, comrade. How they’ve made us suffer!”

Nick Taussig’s latest novel, ‘The Distinguished Assassin’, is out now

independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/fiveminute-memoir-nick-taussig

Marcel Berlins reviews The Distinguished Assassin in The Times

The Distinguished Assassin is Professor Aleksei Klebnikov, banished to a Gulag labour camp in 1949 on trumped-up charges. Set free in 1952, he becomes a hitman for a gangster, assigned to murder six brutal, highly placed Communist officials. Klebnikov’s ultimate aim is to kill the man responsible for his captivity and who, he believes, seduced his wife in his absence. The story is told in alternate chapters covering his time as prisoner and after his release. Through Klebnikov, the plight of the Russian people under Stalinist rule is grippingly demonstrated. Taussig’s style – short on dialogue and long on descriptions and Klebnikov’s thoughts –takes a bit of getting used to, but turns out to be effective for the passionate political and emotional content of his novel.”
Marcel BerlinsThe Times

The Times – 8th June 2013

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevskii

Man is a wolf to man, according to The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov. He has no inclination to be good, but is weak and rebellious. He cannot escape from the compulsion of logic. He is doomed to self-destruct through the assertion of his will. His quest for harmony is futile, unless he submits to a strictly ordered paradise on earth. The necessary forces of “miracle, mystery and authority” must be enforced in this “spiritual kingdom,” in the words of The Grand Inquisitor. Man does not want his freedom. He must be made good.

Zosima, however, believes the opposite. He trusts in the potential of man, who does not have to live according to logic, according to principles that deny him any choice or freedom. Nor does he have to be destroyed by freedom, allowing it to become an all-devouring passion. Rather, he must nurture the good and the beautiful that exists within him. The hope for man consists in his capacity to love, to engage in active love. And through this love, the heart and the mind can live together harmoniously.

Dostoevskii saw his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, as a response to The Grand Inquisitor’s negation of God, his answer lying in man living like Zosima, according to Christian Orthodoxy. The book, therefore, is the author’s hope for, and commitment to, humanity: his belief in the good and beauty that he was sure not only existed within man but would lead to his salvation. And though I do not agree with Dostoevskii’s conclusion – that the answer to man’s suffering lies in the Christian faith – it is nevertheless my book of a lifetime due to the sheer scope, rigour and passion of the author’s endeavour.

The Karamazov nature – sensual and innocent, emotional and intellectual, loving and contemptible – is representative of the contradictory nature of the Russian man, the three brothers coming to symbolize these different natures, which wrestle with one another for dominance throughout the novel’s course. Through their suffering, the brothers all seek harmony, which consists in their various attempts to reconcile these conflicting personalities, though none of them will attain this harmony unless they live with Christ in their hearts.

Dostoevskii does not believe that the ideal of Christ can be fully realized in any of them, this an impossible ideal, contradicting man’s essential nature, in a state of struggle and imperfection on earth. Human life consists in the struggle of good and evil, and this conflict is essential not just incidental. But through this struggle, it is possible for man to gain redemption on earth, which one of the brothers, Aliosha, does finally gain. Another brother’s life, Ivan’s, conversely ends in suicide.

Ivan lives his life according to logic and reason alone, unable to incorporate Christ into his soul, and though I do not believe the absence of Christ leads to his ultimate demise, the absence of love surely does. Ivan sees the suffering of innocent children as too high a price to pay for the attainment of any higher ideal. In his words, “They say without it [suffering] man could not live on this earth, for he would not understand the difference between good and evil. Why should one understand that damned difference… if that’s the price to be paid? All the knowledge in the world is not worth the child’s tearful prayers to Dear Father God.” Ivan, convinced of the power and cogency of his argument, lives by reason alone, denying any love in his heart. Zosima, on the other hand, believes that, “There is no sin in the whole world that God would not forgive the truly penitent. It is altogether beyond any man to commit such a sin as would exceed God’s infinite love… If you repent, you must love. And if you love, you are of God… Love gains everything, redeems everything.”

Though I find it hard to accept Zosima’s claim, that all can be forgiven and find redemption, by the end of the novel I realize I would rather live with hope in my heart than despair, with feeling rather than logic, with love rather than hate. The wonder and importance of Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov lies here, in its capacity to inspire faith in those who live by reason alone, to turn cold hearts warm.

Putin, a modern day Stalin

Masha Gessen, the Russian journalist, wrote a very important book last year, published by Granta in the UK. The Man Without a Face is a devastating portrait of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man who, when he took power of Russia in 2000, swiftly dismantled the young mechanisms of democracy put in place by his drunken predecessor Yeltsin and ruthlessly silenced all critics, be this through repressive legislation, forced exile or murder. The former KGB man was not interested, despite the vein hopes of the West, in being a new Russian leader, open and democratic, instead wanted to rule his country with total control, of the authoritarian not the totalitarian kind. To this extent he aspired less to a Soviet hero such as Brezhnev, and more to one such as Stalin.

The democracy of twenty-first century Russia is, in truth, nothing more than a façade, an illusion, just as the utopia of Stalin’s Russia was, where all Russians, rather than living and working in perfect Communist harmony, lived in abject poverty and dread. Putin, like his great ancestor Stalin, has little concern for the will of people – what they want and need. Rather he cares only for himself and the power of the state he wields total control over, which he will serve, as he did the Soviet state, until the bitter end. Communism collapsed because the people had had enough of this state, which was utterly indifferent to them, hindering them and diminishing their happiness when it had claimed to be doing quite the opposite. Yet Putin’s state, this new state he moulded out of the debris of the old Communist one, is the very same.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, a moody bugger like his monstrous precursor Stalin, expects gratitude from his people for his dedication, his loyalty to Russia and her people. His surly face, like Joseph Vissarionovich’s, conveys a man who should be leader because he knows best, what’s best for the Russian people, and that, despite the great demands of the job, he is making this enormous sacrifice for his people, a sacrifice which includes accumulating vast personal wealth. Stalin might have had a propensity for criminality, which included raising money for the Bolsheviks through bank robbery, kidnap and extortion, but Putin has proved himself a master of it, the boss of bosses, according to Gessen. “Like all mafia bosses, he [has] amassed wealth by outright robberies, as with Yukos, by collecting so-called dues and by placing his cronies wherever there was money or assets to be siphoned off. By the end of 2007, at least one Russian political expert estimated Putin’s personal net worth at $40 billion.” Putin might have labelled certain oligarchs thieves, yet he is perhaps the greatest thief of all. He robs the Russian people not only of their wealth but also their freedom.

But the greatest likeness between the two lies in the image both men cultivated of themselves, which was, and is, so at odds with the truth. There is a cult of personality around Putin too, who, like Stalin, has cast himself in an heroic light – as a benevolent father, brave warrior, wise leader and compassionate man. What one should see, however, is the very opposite – a cruel, cowardly, vain and ruthless one obsessed with personal gain and no more.

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Screen heroes under totalitarian rule

Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state holds total authority over society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life where necessary. It is an appalling political system to live under, and yet its exploration and depiction in film can make for great cinema. Why? Because, from a dramatic standpoint, there is nothing better than pitting a decent, lone hero against a cruel, uniform power. At first the latter seems unbreakable, on account of the sheer extent of its cruelty, yet slowly, the former’s courage and persistence exposes its cracks, until finally the power breaks under the sheer weight of the hero’s righteousness.

Two films that powerfully portray this struggle, of a good man opposing a bad system, are Burnt by the Sun and The Lives of Others. Both do so, not in the often improbable Hollywood vein of the hero suddenly being in possession of a special set of skills which means he can defeat the cruel system single-handedly, but rather in the spirit of knowing what it really is to live under such a regime, where the individual is made utterly subservient and resistance can only be expressed in the seemingly smallest of actions, be this refusing to give a confession or deliberately obstructing an investigation. One is from the Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, who lived under Soviet Communism, the other from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose parents lived under East German Communism.

The former’s protagonist, Colonel Kotov, an old Bolshevik war hero, is hunted down by his wife’s ex-lover, an NKVD agent intent on having him confess that he is a terrorist who wanted to murder Stalin. The latter’s protagonist is Gerd Weisler, a secret Stasi officer who is assigned by his superior to spy on a prominent playwright, also a suspected critic of the regime, only to discover that the real reason he has been assigned the case is because one of the regime’s leaders covets the playwright’s girlfriend and wants her for himself.

Kotov, unlike his nemesis Dmitrii, refuses to let his dignity and humanity be taken from him. He loves his young wife and daughter to the very end, and even when confronted by Stalin’s assassins, who beat him half to death in the back of a government car, refuses to confess to a crime he did not commit. Likewise, Weisler, when he realizes how deeply in love the playwright Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland are, obstructs his own investigation to ensure that Dreyman is not found guilty, though he knows that this will result in him being consigned to Department M for the rest of his working life, a miserable place for disgraced agents, which he subsequently is.

Both men are heroes because both are willing to be burnt by the regimes they live under, to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Kotov resists the lies of Stalinism, and Weisler, the German Democratic Republic. Their actions, seemingly small, are in fact great. Screen heroes such as these are the real heroes of film.

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