Tom Rob Smith
(Grand Central Publishing)Leo Stepanovich Demidov works for the MGB, the Stalinist internal security service. His job is to ferret out any who may dissent, critics of the state. Dissidents get murdered, tortured, or shipped off to a distant gulag where they are worked to death.
We follow Leo through a typical blood-filled day, tracking down an innocent veterinarian, standing by while a colleague murders the family, and then spending the evening convincing another family who lost their son to a murderer that he was not murdered ... merely chopped up by a passing train (in the supposedly perfect Soviet state, deranged murders must follow a pattern: this one didn't.)
The plot line in Child 44 is long and complicated, so I won't lay it out for you. But I will say that when it gets cranked up, and it does so early on, it is damn near unstoppable. Certain events lead Leo and wife, Raisa, to quickly become designated enemies of the state, for they have set out to solve a crime, a crime that is new to the Stalinist state: "random, multiple, ritualized murders" ... in this case, forty-four systematized disembowelings of children, ranging in age from four to sixteen. These murders are gruesome enough, described by the author with such verisimilitude that you might want to skip over certain passages.
You also might want to skip over some of the torture-for-information pages. Smith has a talent for detail that you might lay the book aside for, say an hour or so, take a stroll, sip a bit of chilled Pouilly-Fuissé just to flush the details out of your mind.
Smith has something else going for him. He has captured whole the paranoia that permeated Stalin's Russia.
Leo glanced out the window, waiting for them to disembark. Train stations were patrolled by undercover and uniformed agents. All major transport junctions were deemed to be vulnerable as points of infiltration. There were armed checkpoints on the roads. Ports and harbors were under constant surveillance. No place was more layered in most levels of protection than Moscow. They were attempting to sneak into the most heavily policed city in the country.
From his work as an agent, Leo has learned how to prepare himself: "If you happen to catch their eye, a guard or anyone else, even someone who appears to be a civilian, don't immediately look away. Don't smile or make any gestures. Just hold eye contact and then look at something else."
It is this non-stop all-pervasive paranoia that makes Child 44, so involving. Every time we (Leo, Raisa, their friends) turn around there is someone else wanting to look at their papers, question them, check their very appearance, looking for something to nail them. They are forced to make elaborate plans just to walk down the street to avoid problems. What's more, wherever Leo goes, he spreads chaos and destruction. In an attempt to flush out the serial murderer in Voualsk, the local stationmaster is followed, found to be consorting, after dark, with other men of the village. There is an investigation, and over 200 homosexuals are arrested, questioned, tortured, sentenced to prison or to the gulags. The station master kills himself, appropriately enough, in front of a train.
Leo felt unhinged, part of a horrific, absurd charade, a player in a grotesque farce --- the naïve dreamer, striving for justice but leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. His aspiration --- that the killer be caught --- had been answered with bloodshed.
§ § §
Again, as Leo and Raisa are fleeing Moscow, they stumble across a village of sympathetic peasants. They convince them that their cause is just, organize them to help in their flight. After shielding them and feeding them, the villagers send them off to Rostov Oblast with a local truck-driver. Leo and Raisa lie hidden under containers of fruits and vegetables. Such is the depth of their fear that, packed there between the tomatoes and onions, they carry on a lively whispered dialogue as to whether, at the next stop, they should murder the driver and steal his truck.
It's Raisa's idea. Leo asks why she wants to do such a thing. "Of all the people listening to the story he was the only one who didn't have any questions. He didn't seem to engage with it. It didn't shake him as it shook the others. He seems blank to me, practical, unemotionless," she explains.
Here is some poor villager risking the rest of his life in a gulag to hide and transport two Moscovites he has never met before, will never meet again ... and they actively debate how and when to murder this kindhearted stranger. Leo comments that rather than just leaving him, they would have to murder him, "because we couldn't leave him tied up on the road-side. That would be a far greater risk. We either kill him, or trust him."
Raisa, this is how things fall apart. We've been fed, sheltered, and transported by these people. If we turn on them, execute one of their friends for no reason other than as a precaution, I'd be the same man you despised in Moscow.
And there it is in a nutshell, the poison of the police state: everyone falls victim to the assassination of the natural humanity of people.
§ § §
You may want to read Child 44 all the way to the end, or you might abandon it --- as I wanted to abandon it --- at a certain point where it comes to be, in the author's very words, "a horrific, absurd charade, a grotesque farce."
We (and the characters) are already tortured by this absurd police state. But there comes a time, about two-thirds of the way through the book, where the reader begins to be tortured, too, by an absurd "Oh come on!" feeling.
For me, it came in the boxcar, on its way to the gulag, where Leo and Raisa find themselves crammed in with dozens of other prisoners. There is no food and no water. Guards are everywhere. Leo, ever the resourceful, has a plan.
There is a "shithole" on the floor of the boxcar. If he reaches his arm down through this, he might be able to work out the three nails that hold down the floor boards. But, "In order to reach the nails he was forced to bring his face down flat against the stinking, piss- and shit-sodden wood, retching while blindly groping, guided by touch alone. Splinters dug into his skin ... It had taken many hours to remove two nails since the work had to be interrupted by any prisoner needing the toilet."
At this point the question becomes: do we want to hang in there, to the very end? Or should we just dump it, thanking the author for giving us over 300 pages of good adventure, travel, along with an intimate knowledge of life in the very last awful days of Stalinist Russia?
--- C. A. Amantea