Because there is an element of biography to the main character in this book, you may be fooled into thinking you need to know more about Russian foreign affairs or the literary intellectual scene to indulge in this one. Don’t. The world of cultural references you might be missing out on unless you’re a Russian scholar (with a minor in Southwestern Asia) just keeps building up delicately in the background like a lavish tapestry made of some subtle fabric that does not stand in your way of the story.
We get to follow Griboedov as he wanders first through Moscow and then through imperial Persia engulfed in an aura of political intrigue. Both a socialite and an intellectual, Griboedov is always introspective, even when he is frivolous. There is a strong sense of melancholy that permeates every word and that renders an added depth to the plot that is hard to assimilate to a single factor. The extraordinary events of Griboedov’s life are presented to us through a cinematic lens. We are his witness as he meets with tsars and generals and crosses the dessert as if distractedly and inevitably.
On another note, you might argue that a Nabokovian reader is a deranged reader, who will pick up clues where there are none, but if you’ve read The Gift you might be tempted like me to see a correspondence between chapter 4, entirely dedicated to narrating the critical biography of Chernyshevski, aptly named “Life of Chernyshevski” and our own: “Death of Vazir-Mukhtar”.
Nabokovian wink or not, an utterly satisfying read on its own. And a bit of a spin on the historically canonized Russian novel by an icon of literary theory. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
(ARC kindly provided by publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)
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