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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Sofya Khagi

Boris Akunin and Retro Mode
in Contemporary Russian Culture


The phenomenon of nostalgia has recently become a focus of increasing attention in cultural studies.[1] A number of prominent scholars (Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Svetlana Boym, Susan Stuart etc.) have explored this sentiment as one of the most prominent symptoms of our age. In an ironic twist, globalization appears to go hand in hand with the escalation of a no less global sensation of homesickness. Thus, the present popularity of nostalgic artifacts in the United States, the proliferation of British retro-Victorian novels, or the attempts of French writers to revive the purity of classical French, though divergent in cultural terms, are at the same time all expressions of the nostalgic impulse. In this respect Russia is no exception. Critical reexamination of the Soviet past, vigorously undertaken during the perestroika years, was replaced in the mid-nineties by a mentality which fashionable left-wing journalist Victor Shenderovich called “nostalgic imperialism” (Shenderovich 14). This meant an idealized vision of Soviet life, the time of one’s youth, high hopes, and pride in the might of one’s homeland. Hence such musical projects as Starye pesni o glavnom, TV programs such as Staraia kvartira, Bol’shie roditeli, and Kak eto bylo, or movies like Voroshilovskii strelok became hits. Simultaneously there emerged a different kind of nostalgia, one which had to do with the glorification of pre-revolutionary Russia and of the country’s traditional moral and religious values. Like Soviet nostalgia, the latter type of longing sought reassurance against the dire economic and political circumstances of the present in Russia “which we have lost” (this is the title of an influential movie by Stanislav Govorukhin). In this context one may recall Leonid Parfenov’s series Rossiiskaia imperiia, Nikita Mikhalkov’s movie Sibirskii tsiriul’nik, Leonid Iuzefovich’s Putilin mysteries, Boris Akunin’s Fandorin novels etc, all of which are glaring examples of the current taste for “nostalgia mode” artifacts in Russia.

This essay examines Akunin’s Fandorin bestsellers, deemed to be the most successful turn of the century Russian literary project, in the light of the current appetite for “nostalgia mode” books and films. Numerous Russian nostalgic artifacts, e.g., Sibirskii tsiriul’nik, are garish recollections of the “golden oldies” of Russia’s past, clear-cut content-wise. Akunin’s project, by contrast, serves as a more sophisticated case study of the complex interplay of ideology and aesthetics, fiction and history, as well as culture and commerce, in postmodern retro mode.

One may identify two broadly opposed interpretations of postmodernism. One of them praises postmodernism as a celebration of freedom and heterogeneity. The other, conversely, criticizes postmodernism, linking it to the dissemination of the uniform consumerism and pseudo-culture of the simulacra. Mark Lipovetsky, Nancy Condee, and Vladimir Padunov, e.g., express the former view:

Central to both Russian and Western postmodernism are the death of myth, the end of ideology and uniformity of thought, the emergence of multiple and diverse patterns of thought, a critical approach to institutions and institutionalized values, a movement from a single Culture to multiple cultures, the desecration of the canon, and the rejection of metanarratives. (Lipovetsky 4)

This depicts what one may call the radical postmoderne, with its strongly anti-authoritarian spirit, all-pervasive intellectual skepticism, rejection of traditional cultural and political norms, and celebration of resistance and heterogeneity. Jean Baudrillard's theory of commodity culture, according to which the postmodern world is constructed out of simulations with no foundation in reality, is an instance of the opposing, negative, view. Akunin’s works problematize both outlooks. As I am going to show, they combine relatively moderate views with postmodernist techniques of representation. At the same time, they permit to reconsider the connection between postmodern works and blatant commodification in a novel Russian context.

Fredric Jameson’s exploration of Hollywood “retro mode” is useful for my analysis. As conceptualized by Jameson, “retro mode” became a distinctive category that flourished in American cinema of the seventies and eighties. Jameson argues that the changes taking place in post-industrial society have found expression in fascination with this kind of film. Retro mode’s main characteristics are as follows: first, the presentation of history as spectacle that sacrifices historical authenticity for the sake of “the pleasures of pictorialism”; second, the treatment of the past as the history of aesthetic styles, presenting times gone by as “a copy of a copy,” i.e., composing the intertext of preceding artifacts; third, the transformation of historical narration into commentary on the present or the more recent past. Oriented entirely toward the so-called “intensification of the surface” at the expense of any attempt at a genuine connection to the times, retro mode becomes, as Jameson puts it, “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum, [...] conveying pastness by the glossy qualities of the image” (Jameson 18-19). Jameson interprets this aesthetic mode as “an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way,” and distinguishes between “a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval” and the nostalgia film, “a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste” (18-21).

The suggestion that Jameson’s work is useful for this analysis should not be taken to mean that his exploration of “retro mode” fits Akunin seamlessly. Rather, as this essay is going to demonstrate, what Jameson envisions as the properties of “retro mode” become Akunin’s techniques, self-consciously employed and constantly laid bare. This elucidates the validity of applying Jameson’s notions to Akunin’s sophisticated project. Although one may also assume that Linda Hutcheon’s concept of “historiographic metafiction," to be contrasted to Jameson’s view of “retro mode,” fits Akunin’s work better, that is not exactly so. [2] Unlike Hutcheon's "historiographic metafiction, Akunin’s novels do not seriously invest in “the act of rendering problematic that which was once taken for granted by historiography -- and literature” (Hutcheon xii). His irony is all-pervasive, extending to, among other things, such dearly held notions of historiographic metafiction as the multiplicity and the constructed nature of historical “truths.”

Akunin’s project has been promoted vigorously as something Russian literature has never seen before. Two qualities of the Fandorin novels were particularly emphasized as supposedly marking them as an original and ambitious undertaking: first, their retro value; second, their ability to satisfy both the thrill-seeking general public as well as literary sophisticates enamored of postmodern intertextual games. Indeed, the first, nostalgic aspect soon became the staple of the series. Since 1999 the covers of the novels have featured the following motto: “in memory of the nineteenth century when literature was great, the belief in progress was boundless, and crimes were committed and solved with elegance and taste.”

The motto is a testimony to an astute, and highly self conscious marketing strategy that can illumine Akunin’s bestseller phenomenon. As the recent pioneer of Russian retro mystery, Akunin embarked on an endeavor that was promising in several respects. For one thing, his works shrewdly make the most of the prevalent nostalgic atmosphere. Furthermore, Akunin wisely opted for a genre that has enjoyed great popularity in both the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. Soviet readers, just like their Western counterparts, have traditionally been eager consumers of detective fiction, both foreign and homegrown. [3] Although the mystery, as a pop genre, was officially frowned upon during the Soviet period, collections of Western detective stories (English, American, French, Polish, Scandinavian etc.), as well as books by native mystery authors, such as the Vainer brothers or Iulian Semenov, have always been avidly coveted. In this light, the post-Soviet boom of indigenous detektiv, with Aleksandra Marinina, Daria Dontsova, Chingiz Abdullaev, Andrei Konstantinov and a host of others placing at the top of bestseller charts, is anything but surprising.

Besides striking a congenial nostalgic note, as well as choosing a beloved genre, Akunin placed his retro undertaking on the exceedingly hospitable ground of classical detective fiction. Pastiches of classical detective fiction supply, of course, particularly fertile ground for the nostalgic project. The genre is firmly associated with the “coziness” and “orderliness” of the Victorian world, in which the supremely rational gentleman-detective single-mindedly but gracefully defends traditional values. Hence the mass production and popularity of Anglo-American retro mysteries à la Anne Perry or Caleb Carr. In an attempt to fill the void previously occupied by the Soviet utopian project, the novels construct a new Golden Age, looking back at Alexander III’s reign as Russia’s Victorian era, a time of relative prosperity and social stability. Moreover, like the age of Victoria, these were, so to speak, the twilight years of “good old Russia,” immediately followed by the great social upheavals of Nicholas’s reign and the onset of the fatal 20th century. As such, the epoch is the dream stuff of nostalgia.

An additional aspect of Akunin’s sophisticated marketing strategy is to distinguish himself advantageously from the “vulgar mass” of contemporary thrillers à la Viktor Dotsenko, which are not so much about solving a mystery, as about “gore and sex” action, and which are, to say the least, of a dubious literary quality. His alternative is to produce genteel pastiches of classical whodunits, where “crimes are committed and solved with elegance and taste.” [4] Insofar as the Russian intelligentsia’s fondness for detective fiction applies especially to classical British mystery, as represented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, etc, this is again an astute move. The continuous reruns of Prikliucheniia Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona, a television series, directed by Igor Maslennikov, and originally released in 1979-1986, are one testament to the unremitting attractiveness of Victorian mystery in Russia. The series, as well as the stories themselves, is still so well-liked that, as recently as 2000, the Nostalgia Art Club organized a Sherlock Holmes celebration, with Vasily Livanov/Holmes and Vitaly Solomin/Watson as honorary guests.

It is no less interesting for my purposes that the Holmes series itself conforms to the retro mode. To appreciate the Russian televised version of Conan Doyle’s stories fully, one must realize that this is not a straightforward adaptation of the famous adventures, but their “retro mode” rendition. Even though the series is very careful with the original, and its degree of faithfulness to the canon may be comparable only to that of Granada’s 1980s-1990s production, it still conforms to Jameson’s account rather closely. At the same time, they delicately ironize the nostalgic impulse. Here an emphatically wistful presentation of “good old England” and “good old nineteenth century” coexists with a self-consciously playful presentation of Victorianism. [5] In this respect, the films as such anticipate Akunin’s later retro games.

Akunin’s novels conform to the retro mode to a considerable extent. The works, which depict the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, delight in lush period detail. As Boris Akunin (Grigorii Chkhartishvili) admitted, he enjoys playing with “stiff collars and bulldog revolvers” (Akunin “Besedy,” 3). Given that a meticulous re-creation of the past through minute attention to decor is as characteristic of the traditional historical novel as of the retro mode, one should still heed that Akunin’s series indeed highly privileges the “pleasures of pictorialism.” The hypothetical historical inaccuracies discussed by critics may thus be understood in light of the novels' conceding to our desire to see the past in terms of all its colorful trappings rather than to re-create it as truthfully as possible. [6]

As observed by numerous critics, the novels' intertext is very rich. [7] Indeed, Akunin’s books are constructed as a bricolage of re-worked scenes, motifs, characters, and styles from classical Russian and European literature. For a random example, the opening sentence of the very first novel in the series immediately strikes one as “Bulgakovian”: [8]

On Monday May 13, in the year 1876, after two in the afternoon, on the day that was springlike fresh and summerlike warm, in the Alexandrov gardens, within the sight of numerous witnesses, there occurred an ugly accident which exceeded all the limits. (Akunin Azazel’, 7)

Not only are there plentiful allusions to themes from famous literary texts, and not only do multiple characters remind one of well-known literary protagonists, but there are also whole scenes which are remakes of scenes from classical works. Almaznaia kolesnitsa, the last installment in the series as of today, goes the farthest, by making its first volume as a whole a remake of Aleksandr Kuprin’s well-known “Staff-Captain Rybnikov.” One may claim that the novels to a large degree replace real history by the history of literature. In Jameson’s argument, “the word “remake” is anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the pre-existence of other versions [...] is now an essential part of the structure. [...] We are now in intertextuality as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect” (20). This depiction of the function of intertext in retro mode corresponds to a rather well-established view of postmodern historicism, according to which the past as such has been effaced, leaving only “texts.” In Jameson’s argument, overindulging in intertextuality as “the operator of a new connotation of pastness and pseudo-historical depth” suggests that popular culture can now only refer to other cultural signifiers, while reality outside of pop art has retreated (20).

Finally, the novels appropriate the past so that it makes sense in the present. As Jameson suggests, the retro mode “refracts a missing past through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation” and attempts “to lay siege to our own and immediate past” (19).The series establishes explicit parallels between the past and the present. Problems of terrorism and of ethnic conflicts, the Chechen question, trans-national criminal syndicates, and other burning contemporary issues are all highlighted. Some of the parallels appear clearly comical, as, for instance, references to a group of swindlers who organize a financial pyramid, or to an enormous, highly expensive cathedral built in late nineteenth-century Moscow. One recalls MMM and other notorious financial swindles of the nineties, as well as the re-building of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

The dashing protagonist of the novels is an unlikely hybrid of Sherlock Holmes and a Japanese samurai (note the wink at New Age fascination with things Asian). [9] Several of his adventures have a distinctly Bondian feel, involving secret organizations fighting for world domination. Furthermore, Fandorin’s values appear quite up-to-date, and some of his political and philosophical pronouncements strike one as more than a bit too modern for a nineteenth-century hero. For instance, his thoughts about chaos make one suspect that Fandorin is familiar with both existentialism and poststructural theory. As the protagonist explains to one of his “Watsons,” an old-school servant of the royal family,

Do you know, Afanasii Stepanovich, what you are mistaken about? You believe that the world exists according to certain rules, that it is rational and orderly. But I understood a long time ago that life is none other than chaos. There is neither order nor rules in it. [...] Yes, I have rules, but these are my own rules, ones I made up for myself, not for the whole world. [...] Let the world go its own way, and I will go mine. [...] Our own rules [...] are created not out of a desire to regularize the whole world but in an attempt somehow to organize the space in our immediate vicinity. (Akunin Koronatsiia, ili poslednii iz romanov, 258-59).

It is crucial, however, that all of this is just a game with Akunin. I suggest that the aforementioned historical inaccuracies should be interpreted as deliberate playful anachronisms that are expressive of the novels’ frolicking with historical parallels. For example, when a nineteenth-century character calls the court of Prince Dolgoruky “all his Moscow junta” (Smert’ Akhillesa), or term “Persia” “Iran” (Turetskii gambit), it is highly unlikely that the well-educated Grigorii Chkhartishvili does not perceive such a usage as anachronistic. [10] Rather, the anachronism is consciously employed for comic purposes. Insofar as the novels do not aspire to authentic period behavior, they cannot be blamed for not fully achieving this goal. In fact, they deliberately flaunt their superimposition of late twentieth century mores on the past.

The device of playing with historical analogies is, moreover, laid bare in another Akunin series, Prikliucheniia magistra, which juxtapose two narratives, contemporary and historical, in systematic, tongue-in-cheek alternation, thus simultaneously dramatizing the idea of historical “eternal recurrence,” and putting it in an ironic light. Altyn-Tolobas, the first installment in the series, switches back and forth between the adventures of Cornelius von Dorn in Aleksei Mikhailovich’s seventeenth-century Muscovy, and those of his descendant historian Nicholas Fandorin in Yeltsin’s Russia. Analogously, Vneklassnoe chtenie, the second novel of the series, puts side by side Nicholas’s exploits, and those of a wonder child Mitya and Danila Fandorin during Catherine the Great's reign. The latter work makes the technique of analogies even more overt not merely alternating between contemporary and historical chapters, but also coordinating any given chapter with the one preceding it down to the smallest detail. For instance, in the first, contemporary chapter Nicholas plays a computer game in which Catherine’s fate “is being decided.” At the end of the chapter he is looking at her picture on the computer screen. The next, historical chapter commences with Mitya beholding the living empress for the first time, and proceeds to relate how the little boy saved her life. [11] The novel ends by quoting verbatim Ivan Turgenev’s renowned eulogy of eternal recurrence from the conclusion of Fathers and Sons:

The flowers growing upon it [the grave] peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes: they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that peace of indifferent nature; they tell us, too, of eternal reconciliation and of life without end. (Turgenev 247).

Yet the reader will know by this point that the heroes turn out to be fake “fathers” and “children.” [12] Thus the work simultaneously articulates the idea of historical and familial “eternal return,” and puts it in an ironic light.

Although the practice of reinterpreting the past in juxtaposition with the present cannot be confined to postmodern historicism, it follows from Jameson’s argument that, in contrast to, e. g., the Romantics, the retro mode “voids” the past. [13] According to him, projecting present beliefs and values onto the past is incompatible with genuine historicity. On the whole, the critic interprets retro mode as a symptom of historiographic crisis. Attempts are no longer even made to discern how a given historical moment perceives itself. In addition, the past is textualized and commodified. It is clear from Jameson’s analysis that the critic views nostalgia mode as a cheaper, profit-driven version of modernist nostalgia.

As suggested above, the commercial value of the novels has been emphasized from the beginning. Both critics and the writer himself stressed that the project was groundbreaking, insofar as, putatively for the first time in Russian culture, the boundary between high and low literary art was challenged, and there emerged a popular fiction of a very high quality. [14] As Akunin claimed in an interview, he “was one of the first in the country to attempt to unite two genres -- high and low. [Russia] had never had the intermediate link -- entertaining reading for a demanding reader” (Akunin “Interv’iu MN,” 7). Indeed, Boris Akunin became something of a “Bakunin,” a literary anarchist advocating a replacement of the Russian “poet who is more than poet” by the Western literary professional. However,given that his novels do unashamedly feed on the current nostalgic mood as well as on the taste for light fiction, their treatment of both history and literature is sophisticated enough to make us reconsider an unqualified equation of retro mode with pure consumerism.

As conceptualized by Jameson, straightforward retro artifacts do not appear to be aware of their aesthetic properties, which the critic explores in his analysis of retro mode. By contrast, Akunin’s oeuvre employs the traits of nostalgia mode in a very self-conscious way. Thus, the works do not merely turn “past time into pastime” (to borrow Linda Hutcheon’s lively pun), but also dramatize their playful, consolatory manner of handling historical material. One way Akunin does this is by emphasizing that he constructs the myth of the Russian Golden Age as a bricolage of motifs from the Golden Age of Russian literature. As Akunin explains, he is interested in the myth of Russia and perceives the country as “invented” by literature (Akunin “Interv’iu NG,” 3). [15] The writer thus acknowledges postmodern skepticism with regard to the accessibility of events unmediated by their cultural representations.

The retrospective projection of contemporary preoccupations onto the past is highlighted through the use of the explicitly comic anachronisms I have already mentioned. According to Jameson, postmodern historicism conceptualizes the past primarily as the site where the present was born. The novels, correspondingly, satirize the notion of “historical emergence” by presenting emphatically preposterous versions of this phenomenon. A good example is the invention of the bumper by a street urchin in Liubovnik smerti. Akunin writes as if from “the end of history,” amusing himself with “making sense” of particular events. The novels offer a bifurcated perspective: one, “naive,” from “inside the time,” and the other “all-wise,” contemporary. The source of enjoyment is in “recognizing history,” being privy to the transformation of events that at first seem unfamiliar and inconsequential into historic “facts,” invested with solemn significance. [16] Historic irony permeates the works, providing a major source of delight. It is analogous to dramatic irony, with the reader appreciating the significance of events in which the characters, blind to this import, are immersed. For instance, the narrator taps into the reader’s knowledge of twentieth-century history when Baroness Ester defends her organization before Fandorin:

In my forty years of pedagogical activity I have set sixteen thousand eight hundred and ninety three people on the path of life. [...] Haven't you noticed that since the middle of our nineteenth century the world has suddenly become kinder, wiser, more beautiful? A truly peaceful revolution is taking place. And it is absolutely necessary, for otherwise the unfair organization of society will lead to a different, bloody revolution that will throw mankind several centuries back in time. (Akunin Azazel’, 196-97)

A good example of “historic irony” is the episode from Koronatsiia, ili poslednii iz romanov, in which Muscovites discuss the mysterious poisoning of a certain unidentified musician (read: Tchaikovsky). Another engaging instance of the satire of “historical emergence” is the episode in Almaznaia kolesnitsa where Fandorin “invents” phone interception. An officer naively admires his idea to link up to the phone line:

It is incredible that no one has thought about this before! You see, one can set up a special office at the telephone station! To intercept the conversations of suspicious persons! How much benefit for the motherland! And how civilized, in the spirit of scientific progre... (Akunin Almaznaia kolesnitsa, 58-59).

It is very important, however, that the writer merely plays with investing history with sense, making sure that we realize this. [17] The twofold temporality of the text does not reflect the fallacy of the “law of retrospection,” but serves as a meta-comment on this fallacy through baring the bifurcated vision. [18] In fact, Akunin foregrounds his play with past/present in the very title of the series. The Fandorin novels are published under the rubric Novyi detektiv, a mocking combination of “new” and pre-reform spelling. One thus sees that Akunin does not so much concede to retro historicism, as, tongue-in-cheek, utilizes its formulae. Similarly, Aleksandr Adabash'ian's TV version of Azazel’ (2002) underscores Akunin’s games with history by making the first shots of the movie look simultaneously like stylized Victorian photographs and computer graphics.

If, according to Aristotle, history narrates what really happened, whereas poetry narrates what could/might have happened, Akunin’s novels relate what could not happen. [19] A vivid example is his reconstruction of the Khodynka tragedy in Koronatsiia, ili poslednii iz romanov, which is supposedly caused by an arch-evil femme fatale attempting to elude her capture by Fandorin. The effect of the intrigue depends on the reader’s familiarity with the tragic events, and on his realization that such an elucidation of the calamity is preposterous. By making his “historical” novels markedly fictitious, the writer lampoons the notion of historical fiction as based on the probable. Significantly, though, his ridicule does not stop at this point. Postmodern “historiographic metafiction,” as conceptualized by Hutcheon, favors the promotion of obscure historical actors, thus dramatizing its skepticism as regards coherence and order in history, and the importance it attaches to the strange and the accidental. Clearly, insofar as Akunin advances markedly preposterous “explanations" of historical events, i.e., insofar as he takes historiographic metafiction’s predilection for alternative historical narratives to the point of the absurd, he does not so much subscribe to the vision as parodies it.

Another interesting illustration of his play with history and fiction is his “solution” of Jack the Ripper’s case in Osobye porucheniia. According to his account, Jack the Ripper turns out to be Russian (!), and is apprehended and shot by Fandorin, while continuing his foul crimes in Moscow. Like the explanation of the Khodynka disaster in Koronatsiia, the “solution” to the mystery of Jack the Ripper advertises its fictitiousness. In addition, the episode serves as one of the more explicit expositions of Akunin’s play with Victorianism and Victorian detective fiction. Like Igor Maslennikov’s series, which, by the way, itself serves as a major subtext for the novels, as well as for Azazel’s televised version, the Fandorin series mocks the heroes’ primness, as well as their naive devotion to technical progress. The novels also proclaim Conan Doyle to be their principal subtextual factor throughout. As early as the first chapters of Azazel, there appears Ivan Frantsevich Brilling, a new type of a “scientific investigator,” a thoroughly Europeanized “man of the future.” At their first meeting, Brilling fascinates the youthful Fandorin with an enthusiastic expose of the deductive method, which rings as distinctly Holmesian:

I see there is no need to introduce myself. [...] You already know the basic facts about me, though presented in an unflattering light. [...] It is the deductive method, my dear Fandorin. Building the overall picture from certain small details. [...] Your landlady bowed to me almost down to the floor and called me Excellency -- that's one. As you see, I do not even remotely resemble an Excellency [...] -- that's two. Apart from Grushin I told no one I was intending to visit you -- that's three. Clearly, Mr. Superintendent can express only an unflattering opinion of my activities -- that's four. (Akunin Azazel', 43).

Although Brilling resembles the famous English detective in many particulars, including his physical appearance, he turns out to be a key figure in Baroness Ester’s criminal society. By presenting a parodic Holmes who upsets our expectations, Akunin caricatures classical detective fiction. Analogously, Koronatsiia, ili poslednii iz romanov is a parody of The Final Problem. At the start, we learn about Fandorin's "death” at a Vorobiev park ravine, which is the “falls of Reichenbach” in a miniaturized mode. Fandorin’s “Moriarty” is Doctor Lind, who turns out to be a woman. His “Watson” is Ziukin, a laughably old-fashioned butler of the royal household.

In contrast to numerous postmodernist writers who dramatize the idea of historical chaos through structural disorder (e.g., Pynchon), Akunin makes up plotlines of the “well-made” type, tightly structured and neatly resolved. In fact, they are so trim as to practically scream out their fictitiousness. In other words, instead of overwhelming the reader with a multiplicity of random facts that do not cohere well, he satirizes historical patterning by offering patterns that are too tidy to be plausible. Insofar as detective fiction is one of the most formalized literary genres, his play with stock situations in the Fandorin stories is particularly effective. [20] The novels smirk at the reader, as it were, not allowing him for a moment to fall under the illusion of verisimilitude. The well-made plots neither purport to divine the past nor earnestly invest in a postmodernist re-conceptualization of history as open-ended “texts.” Rather, they are for pure pleasure, art for art’s sake. Furthermore, the pleasure depends in part precisely on our recognition of the stories’ incommensurability with reality.

Just as Akunin underscores his light-hearted manner of handling history, he cautions against taking his texts too seriously by offering narrative moves that promote an explanation in terms of internal aesthetic exigencies over an externally motivated explanation. In other words, they can be more plausibly explicated as permitting, e.g., a clever pun, an entertaining intertextual allusion, or simply as bookishly “pretty,” rather than in terms of characters’ psychology, social factors, historical facts etc. Here one may recall the scene at the closure of Azazel’ where Fandorin loses his young wife. The episode is highly unnatural and badly motivated, but is aesthetically effective, since it not only provides a requisite “beautiful” tragic ending, but also fulfills our intertextual expectations that a romance between a “Liza” and an “Erast” must end unhappily. Again, Akunin lays bare the device in the dialogue between Fandorin and Lizan'ka in which they discuss Karamzin. The girl confesses that she has been dreaming about Erast Petrovich, but that her dreams were sad:

That is because of Poor Liza. Liza and Erast, remember? [...] I imagine myself lying in the coffin, lovely and pale, all surrounded by white roses, drowned or dead from consumption, and you are crying. (Akunin Azazel’, 190)

Alternatively, an intrinsic and an extrinsic explication would “jar” vis-à-vis each other, and the rift between the “extra-literary” and the “literary” explanations would constitute a source of play and enjoyment. In either case esthetic formulas, disguising themselves as manifestations of reality, would be exposed for what they are, and the text would advertise its status as a playful literary artifact with more than modest claims to truth. An entertaining example of laying bare the illusionism of his work would be when Akunin, in the first novel, has his protagonist saved from what should have been a lethal blow by a corset named “Lord Byron.”

Recognizable scenarios, familiar character types, and gracious antiquated language together produce a gently ironic but comforting dialogic aura. If, as Wellek and Warren point out, “man’s pleasure in a literary work is compounded of the sense of novelty and the sense of recognition” (Wellek and Warren 297), Akunin exploits both fully. The sense of novelty comes from the aforementioned mildly ironic attitude toward the classical intertext, as well as from narrative moves that from time to time depart from traditional scenarios, upsetting the reader’s expectations. The texts are highly formulaic. As such, they demand a peculiar ability to manipulate predictable patterns with unpredictable results, as when, for example, Akunin “estranges” classical Russian literary motifs by placing them in the novel guise of detective fiction. Both pleasures, that of “deja-lu,” and that of novelty, work in tandem, reinforcing each other.

Parallelism, whether literary or historical, is the focal technique of the novels. The works “rhyme” historical periods just as they “rhyme” with their literary predecessors. The idea of parallelism as the fundamental, pleasure-inducing property of art has been advanced by Schopenhauer and, following him, Nietzsche. As Schopenhauer suggests, art satisfies a human desire for regularity and order that are absent in life. In his observation, poetic equivalences like meter and rhyme, just like musical equivalences, “give rise to a blind agreement with what is read, prior to all judgment” (Schopenhauer 123). Poetic and musical rhythm gratifies our desire for the reconciliation of discordant elements “as if by accident.” This provides “the copy of the meeting of our desires with the favorable external circumstances independent of them, and is thus the picture of happiness” (123). The effect, however, is not accidental, but produced by the composer or the poet. Accordingly, art deceives man by providing a simulacrum of harmony, and artificially assuaging the desires that can never be satisfied in real life. Nietzsche, likewise, suggests that poetic equivalences produce a strong effect on us because “of a quite elementary symbolism by which the regular and the orderly imposes itself on our understanding as a higher realm, a life above and beyond this irregular life” (Nietzsche 244). An analogous idea has been advanced by Gerald Manley Hopkins, Viktor Shklovsky, and, later, Roman Jakobson. The latter deemed parallelism to be the essential feature of poetry, with rhyme only a particular, “condensed” case of the more general principle (Jakobson 82-3). Shklovsky widened the notion of artistic parallelism to encompass prose as well as poetry by correlating compositional and stylistic parallelisms (Shklovsky 143).

What distinguishes Akunin’s works from other artistic productions that, according to the thinkers, habitually involve parallelism, is the extent to which he relies on this principle. Correspondences function as a particularly potent technique in his books insofar as he employs them on multiple levels (phraseological, structural, thematic, historical), and highly self-consciously. Historical “eternal returns,” in tandem with innumerable lexical and narrative intertextual echoes, impress the reader with an added sense of harmony. Interestingly enough, the effect occurs even when relatively dark historical analogies are drawn. For instance, the opening chapters of Altyn-Tolobas, which juxtapose Cornelius von Dorn’s misadventures in Aleksei Mikhailovich’s Muscovy, and Nicholas Fandorin’s mishaps in contemporary Russia, suggest that Russia has not changed for the better since the sixteenth century. Although the idea that the same destitution, hard drinking, and corruption are present is grim per se, the narrative is humorous and peculiarly comforting. Akunin’s vision of the “eternal return” may not be that different from Blok’s famous “Noch’, ulitsa, fonar’, apteka.” However, the tonality is entirely different. The despondency that is so pronounced in the poem is absent in Akunin. The aesthetic properties of the text “soften,” as it were, harsh historical facts.

At the same time, just as historical analogies are not to be taken too seriously, laying bare the principle of parallelism on all levels constantly keeps the reader aware of the works as artifice. [21] The pleasurable device of correspondences is not to be interpreted as a grave insight into patterns of historical development. Nor is it to be invested with metaphysical significance. Just as Akunin’s playful parallelisms are far removed from Blok’s melancholy vision, they have little in common with, e.g., Mandelstam’s earnest notion of poetic and historic “joy of recurrence,” as expressed in “Tristia” and elsewhere. [22] They are to be taken exactly as a literary device -- no more and no less.

As this analysis of the works demonstrates, what Jameson deems the properties of retro mode become Akunin’s techniques, consciously employed and continuously laid bare. He both utilizes the opportunistic features of retro mode and dramatizes his awareness of doing so, compelling us to rethink a straightforward identification of nostalgia mode with an exclusively populist type of art. Analogously, he plays with the problematics of postmodern historiography, as envisioned by Hutcheon and other like minded critics, both invoking historiographic metafiction's notion of history as multiple, constructed texts, and ironizing it. Likewise, the consideration of the texts’ aesthetic features vis-à-vis their ideology calls for rethinking the straightforward joining of radical and postmodern. Clearly postmodernist in aesthetic terms (i.e., constructed as a pastiche of classical works, employing double-coding, juxtaposition of narrative sequences, multiple narrative voices, etc), the works at the same time present relatively moderate ideological views. Like straightforwardly conservative retro works, e.g., Mikhalkov’s movie mentioned above, Akunin chooses the last quarter of the nineteenth century, painting a cozy picture of old Russia. [23] At the same time, the Fandorin novels do not idealize pre-revolutionary Russia in the same uncomplicated manner. Rather, pastiche and parody, nostalgia and its ironic debunking productively coexist in Akunin. The past is neither fetishized, as in conservative retro productions, nor rejected, as in radical works. Instead, the series projects moderate views, promoting restraint as the highest political, ethical, as well as aesthetic value. As Fandorin explains to the over-zealous emancipated Varia in Turetskii gambit, revolutions are ruinous and ineffective. What Russia needs is steady, cautious development. Sensitive to the corruption around him, he nevertheless maintains that one either has to take care of the state one lives in or else leave.

At “the twilight of idols,” Boris Akunin pays an intricate, ironically-charged tribute to the utopia of Russia and the utopia of Russian literature. From Azazel’ onwards he dallies with the idea of Russian literature “bringing about revolution.” Thus, in the first novel he makes Fandorin responsible for the failure of Baroness Ester’s “peaceful movers of progress.” Similarly, in Almaznaia kolesnitsa, Fandorin is made responsible for the Russian defeat during the 1905 war with Japan, with staff-captain Rybnikov, a Japanese spy and Fandorin’s unknown son, beating the hero at his game. Likewise, in Koronatsiia Fandorin indirectly causes the Khodynka tragedy, and in Altyn-Tolobas Cornelius von Dorn unwittingly brings about Alexei Mikhailovich’s death. Throughout both Fandorin and Prikliucheniia magistra series, Akunin constructs his own virtual history of Russia. This is a history in which the Fandorin line not merely takes part in key events, but itself frequently decides the fates of country. Such a “history” is not open-ended or multidimensional (as in Hutcheon's serious vision of postmodern historiography) but frankly and unblushingly conjured, not history as “metatext” but “art as device.” Moreover, just as his eulogy of the Russian literary myth is ironically tempered, the idea above is not to be taken fully in earnest. After all, as one of his more perceptive heroes asserts, “literature is a toy, in a normal country it cannot be important” (Akunin Turetskii gambit, 196). And, as Akunin himself, perhaps coyly, posits, “when the writer is an important figure in the country, it means that things are not going well” (“Interv’iu NG,” 3). “Evil man” (aku nin in Japanese) that he is, he challenges the long-revered tradition of Russian letters’ high calling, turning worship into recreation.

As we saw, the analysis of the Fandorin bestsellers as nostalgia-driven artifacts permits an exciting exploration of the relations between eulogy and satire, form and content, art and commodification in retro mode. In her recent book The Future of Nostalgia Svetlana Boym makes a useful distinction between restorative nostalgia which stresses nostos (return home) and reflective nostalgia, which emphasizes algia (longing). The former attempts to bring back the essence of nationhood and home, while the latter cherishes distance itself, skeptical of the feasibility of homecoming. The latter kind should be placed alongside Jameson’s vision of a pure modernist nostalgia which emphasizes the pain of an irrevocably lost past. Akunin’s books seem to combine both types of nostalgia, as defined by Boym -- restorative and reflective. Restorative nostalgia enters his work insofar as the works do evoke the myth of Russia (i.e., the myth of Russian art), conveying hope for the future and thus acting therapeutically on the national spirit. However, what is fascinating about the works, is that they are simultaneously conformist and oppositional, mythologize and subvert the past, distribute nostalgic medicine and mock themselves in the very same act of distribution. It appears, after all, that reflective nostalgia sells as well as restorative.


  1. This essay expands upon a series of talks on Boris Akunin and “retro mode” I have delivered in 2001-2003 at AATSEEL, AAASS, and MLA conventions. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own.
  2. On historiographic metafiction see Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction.
  3. For a comprehensive analysis of modern Russian detective fiction see Olcott, The Detektiv and the Russian Way of Crime. Also see Ivanova 7-22, and Levina 79-95.
  4. According to Anthony Olcott,

  5.  

    The detektivy are not intended to be puzzles of logic that their readers delight in solving; nor are they  written to be celebrations of acts of individual heroism, initiative, or daring. The central subject in the detektiv, in the Soviet-era books and in those of the present day alike, is the collective harm that is done to society when society itself is unable to contain  all of its members. (45)

    As pastiches of classical detective fiction, Akunin’s works diverge from this description. They are intended primarily as decorous puzzles of logic (even though the logic is not always very rigorous), and their protagonist is very much a Western-style individualist. On Akunin’s advancement of western middle-class values, see Aron 149-57.

  6. The characters’ primness is parodically exaggerated, as, e.g., in the boxing scene between Holmes and Watson in Znakomstvo. Also see, e.g., the ridiculously small portions of porridge, or the tiny, but exceedingly solemn butler in Sobaka Baskervilei. The scene in Smertel’naia skhvatka, in which the heroes are struck by the appearance of a “samodvizhushchiisia ekipazh," a preposterous-looking and exceedingly slow-moving contraption, is another example of the series’ play with the past. The transformation of “Doyle’s sober and restrained Henry Baskerville” “into a caricaturedly expansive, boozing cowboy” (Goscilo 16) can also be explained by the series’ overall parodic thrust.
  7. For the critique of Akunin’s historical “mistakes” see, e.g., Brodskii 6, Ulianova 4, and Kogan 7.
  8. See, e.g., Vishevsky 733-39, Tsiplakov 159-81, and Basinsky 188-201.
  9. Cf. the renowned beginning of The Master and Margarita: “At the hour of sunset, on a hot spring day, two citizens appeared on the Patriarchs’ Ponds” (Bulgakov 11).
  10. Akunin’s expertise as a translator from Japanese, of course, comes to mind.
  11. During zastoi, the word junta was habitually used in reference to militant regimes in Latin America.
  12. The end of chapter 1: “The greatest woman of Russian history was looking at Nika attentively, without smirking, as if she knew that her fate is being decided” (Akunin Vneklassnoe chtenie, 37). The beginning of chapter 2: “The eyes of the mother-tsarina turned out to be light-gray, radiant, with sly wrinkles at the corners” (37).
  13. See the story of Mira and Mirat Vilenovich Kutsenko.
  14. On Romantic historiography see, e.g., Evdokimova: “Reinterpreting and rewriting the past as a commentary on the present and prophesy for the future became a common practice among Romantic writers” (33).
  15. In Jameson’s and other critics’ well-known view, postmodernism erodes the distinction between high art and pop culture.
  16. Cf. postmodernist intertextual play in the Russian Holmes series, e.g., the scene in Znakomstvo, in which the portraits of great criminals in Holmes’s bedroom turn out to be the photos of leading actors from classical Hollywood horror movies.
  17. Cf. the conclusion of Dvadtsatyi vek nachinaetsia, the last film of Prikliucheniia Sherloka Holmsa i doktora Vatsona, in which the safe of a German spy, defeated by the heroes, displays numbers 1914, obviously hinting at the commencement of WWI.
  18. On postmodern historiography see, e.g., Hutcheon A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. In the traditional view of history vs. historic fiction, the former aims at knowledge, whereas the latter aims at unification and solace. In this sense, Akunin’s novels fulfill the conventional consolatory function. Insofar as the texts insist on advertising their whimsical nature, they both intensify and weaken the consolatory effect.
  19. On the “fallacy of retrospection” see, e.g., Morson: “To describe the past accurately, one must think away, so far as this is humanly possible, the surplus of knowledge about the future that one possesses”(165).
  20. See Aristotle Poetics.
  21. As Porter, among others, points out, “no other genre is more conscious of the models from which it borrows and from which it knowingly departs” (52).
  22. Note the emphasis on artificiality in Hopkins’s notion of parallelism. He suggests that “the artificial part of poetry, perhaps we shall be right to say all artifice, reduces itself to the principle of parallelism” (Hopkins 84).
  23. See Mandelstam: “Everything once was, everything will be repeated/And the moment of recognition alone is sweet to us” (1:138).
  24. Mikhalkov’s hefty pretender to an Oscar fully conforms to the “retro mode” as conceptualized by Jameson. The movie presents a number of sumptuously staged set pieces, among them a splendid ball at the military academy, over-the-top Shrovetide celebrations, and a parade before the tsar in which the cadets, as Mikhalkov himself admitted, were dressed way more luxuriously than they used to in reality. Thus, historical authenticity is sacrificed for the sake of “the pleasures of pictorialism.” This may also explain numerous other historical inaccuracies discussed by critics. The movie is an ostentatious spectacle Hollywood-style, with the high-key lighting and hard color habitually used in musicals and comedies. It is sleek, vivid, and aggressively opulent, capitalizing on one’s desire to see the past in terms of all its colorful trappings rather than to know it. The imagery, moreover, mimics famous Russian paintings of the second half of the nineteenth century, thus replacing real history by the history of art. One may notice a Kuindzhi, a Savrasov, several Surikovs, and plenty of Kustodievs with their requisite sturdy women in gaudy red kerchiefs. Likewise, there are frequent allusions to classical Russian literature, like the main character’s name (Tolstoy) or the book the heroine is reading on the train (Anna Karenina). Finally, the movie appropriates the past so that it makes sense in the present. In this light, such anachronistic details as a glimpse of a high-rise building in one shot, Radlov’s private line (read: kremlevskaia vertushka) to the Grand Duke, or captain Mokin’s usage of a popular contemporary adjective khrenov (“damned”) do not seem any less comical but at least make sense. More significantly, one understands that Andrei’s suffering because of Jane, as well as McCracken’s destruction of the taiga by his hellish machine, are meant to evoke the recent history of Russian-American relations.
Works Cited
 

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___________. Azazel’. Moskva: Zakharov, 2000.

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___________. Koronatsiia, ili poslednii iz romanov. Moskva: Zakharov, 2000.

___________. “Interv’iu.” Moskovskie novosti, 10-16 October 2000.

___________. “Interv’iu” Novaia gazeta, 1 April 2002.

___________. Turetskii gambit. Moskva: Zakharov, 2001.

___________. Vneklassnoe chtenie. Moskva: Olma-Press, 2002.

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Aron, Leon. “A Champion for the Bourgeoisie: Reinventing Virtue and Citizenship in Boris Akunin’s Novels.” The National Interest, 75 (Spring 2004).

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Wellek, Rene, and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1949.

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