Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of Grigory Chkhartishvili. He has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Erast Fandorin books have sold over ten million copies in Russia alone. He lives in Moscow.
Boris Akunin, author of Murder on the Leviathan , Q&A
Where do you live? And why?
I live in Moscow. I can think of quite a lot of reasons for not wanting to live in Moscow which isn’t a cozy place. But this city is good for someone with a creative profession: there is something in the air which makes your brain tick, your nerves twang, your blood circulate faster.
What’s the greatest influence on your writing?
Russian classical literature - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov - and Alexander Dumas, R.L. Stevenson and Mark Twain.
Typewriter, Word Processor, or pen?
Computer, my best friend.
Did you enjoy school? What is your most vivid memory of your school years?
I have a recurrent nightmare I get an official notice informing me that my high school diploma is invalid and I have to return to the same school and spend 2 years there otherwise my universiy diploma will be annulled and the printing of my books stopped etc, etc. So I am sitting again in the familiar classroom with all my former classmates - some bald, some gray at temples - and we are all are staring at the blackboard on which our old teacher of physics is writing lines upon lines of formulae … I am always so happy to wake up.
What educational qualifications do you have? Have you had any formal tuition in creative writing? If so, where and what? Did you find it useful?
I am a graduate of the Historico-Philological Faculty of the Institute of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State University. I studied in Japan and in Germany. For 20 years I translated fiction from Japanese into Russian. That’s the best possible way to learn creative writing - trying to imitate the style of one author, then another, then another. After all, the right way to combine words - that’s what literature is about.
Did you always want to be an author? If not, what did you originally want to be and when and why did you change your mind?
As a kid growing up in the Soviet Union of 1960s, I of course wanted to become an astronaut. Maybe embark on a flight to some distant solar system, you know, the kind of voyage when time inside the spacecraft passes much slower than on earth, so when I come back it would be 23rd Century here, the communist paradise already built, no problems left, everybody happy … cannot say that I have outlived that dream entirely.
What were the first pieces of writing that you produced? e.g. short stories, school magazine etc.
I started to write my first novel when I was 6, in block letters. It was supposed to be a historical costume drama. I wrote the first sentence; “It was raining cats and dogs. Someone’s voice asked: Where are you, Boris?” Then I started drawing illustrations to the text, was carried away and the novel was left unfinished. Forty years passed. To the majority of Russians my name is now Boris. I write historical fiction. And while I am answering the questions of this questionnaire, it’s raining cats and dogs outside - Moscow autumn.
If your house was burning down what would you save?
My computer - there are half a dozen unpublished texts in it.
What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you?
That’s the question characters from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot ask each other. My answer is: I am too embarrassed even to recall.
How do you write each novel i.e. - do you block out the narrative first, take each page at a time, create the central character, build a cast of characters?
It starts with a very little spark - an idea for a plot, a tune I hear on the radio, a face I see in a crowd. Smith ignites. I see a chain of obscure images and feel an impact. Depending on the strength of the impact, I know immediately whether it’s going to be a novel, a short story or a play. I stock the idea in a special file, and there it waits for its turn, maybe for a couple of years, it doesn’t matter - I never forget the initial impact and the memory doesn’t fade.
How did you write your work of non-fiction?
I have two books of non-fiction, both published not under the pseudonym “Boris Akunin”, but under my real name Grigory Chkhartishvili. The first was a thick volume called The Writer and Suicide. It’s a study of the phenomenon of voluntary death seen from different aspects. The book also contains as a supplement a short biographical encyclopedia of 350 writers who committed suicide, from all countries and epochs. Re the second title see the last question below).
Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?
Queer things started happening to me after I began writing fiction. Mine is a mystical profession, any writer has the same kind of experience: meeting characters from your books in real life, sometimes getting letters from them, etc, etc. Just one example - not very spectacular, but fresh, it happened about 10 days ago. I spent the morning writing an episode where dialogue and action was centered around the three Buddhist monkeys - you know, one closing its mouth, one closing its eyes, one blocking its ears: “Say no evil, see no evil, hear no evil”. Then I went for a stroll, and one of the first things I saw outside was a statuette of the three apes in the window of a video-rental shop which is around the corner from my place. It hadn't been there the day before and I never saw it there again. Of course it would have been easy to walk in and ask: why did you put this thing on display today? But I didn’t ask. I like it when life contains a small number of inexplicable mysteries.
Have any of your books been televised or made into films? Who by and when were they screened?
Azazel (The Winter Queen in English translation) was screened as a TV mini-series. The Turkish Gambit too, and it also exists in movie format. There is also a movie and TV serial based on another Erast Fandorin novel - A Councillor of State.
What is a typical writing day?
Two short writing sessions: one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon. The rest of the day is reserved for recharging my batteries.
Have you started your next book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
My new book which is launched in Russia on October 20th is called Stories from Cemeteries. It has two parts - fictional (written by B. Akunin) and non-fictional (written by Chkhartishvili). The latter describes six famous cemeteries from around the world, one of them British - Highgate Cemetery. The former adds a short story to each of the essays. Among protagonists of those stories are Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Lola Montez and of course my favourite character Erast Fandorin.
© Orion Publishing Group
BORIS AKUNIN'S BIBLIOGRAPHY
LEARN MORE ON BORIS AKUNIN
Boris Akunin is the Mainland Europe Guest of Honour at LEFT COAST CRIME 2006 being held in Bristol 16th - 19th June 2006. Details of which can be found herehttp://www.interbridge.com/leftcoastcrime2006/
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Source: Review Copy (Weidnfeld & Nicolson)
Regular readers of the blog will know that an author I often recommend to people is Boris Akunin. I came across his work a number of years ago, taking a chance on his first Erast Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen, which I found to be a heartbreakingly brilliant book and I was determined to read the others in the series. A lucky Oxfam find meant that this didn’t take me too long and even then I moved on to his equally excellent Sister Pelagia trilogy. Of course the downside to blasting through the 13 works of Akunin translated into English meant that I then had none left to read and it remained that way for quite a few years. So I was ecstatic when I saw last year that in 2017 All the World’s a Stage was going to be translated. Ecstatic, excited and actually a little bit anxious. After all this time would I still love his work?
For those new to the Erast Fandorin series a brief introduction: The series as a whole is set in the 19th and 20th century, mostly in Russia but also in other places such as England, Japan and Turkey. Fandorin initially begins in the Russian police force, but then soon becomes more of a freelance operative solving crimes and pitting himself against tremendous adversaries, though not without great cost to himself at times. A few books into the series he gains a lifelong friend in Masa. Today’s read is set in 1911 and is the 13th published work in the Fandorin series, (as two novellas earlier in the series have been published as one book). Technically there is a 12th publication, The Jaded Rosary, between today’s text and The Diamond Chariot, the last book to have been translated. This collection of short stories has not yet been translated though. I’ve also read that there is a spin off series, which has not been translated yet either, featuring Nicholas Fandorin, the grandson of Erast, who is a modern day historian. In addition there are two one off stories featuring the twins of Erast, which have time travelling plots. For a reader new to the Fandorin series, I’d definitely recommend if possible reading them all in order as you get more out of it that way, in terms of how the characters change, grow and develop. But if 11 books seems a bit too wieldy, then I’d suggest reading the first three or so and then jumping to book 10, The Diamond Chariot before reading today’s book.
So what’s today read about?
This is a series where Fandorin naturally ages, as in the first story he is a young 20 something. Now though in book 13 he has reached his mid-fifties and the book opens with Fandorin coming to terms with his ever increasing age, but also his plans to maintain physical and intellectual agility. Of course with all this build-up of Fandorin’s prowess you know he is going to fall at some point in this book…
Initially it seems as though Fandorin will be getting involved in solving a terrorist act, involving the murder of a Russian government minister, yet the plot takes a radical alternative direction when Fandorin answers the phone and as a favour to an old friend becomes in embroiled in the world of the theatre, in particular the troupe working in the Noah’s Ark theatre company. He is asked to look into what is terrifying an actress named Eliza Altairsky-Lointaine and due to the narrative switching points of the view, the reader soon has an insight in to this matter. Alas Fandorin does not, who is left trying to understand who is menacing Lointaine with snakes, vandalising theatre property with bizarre and increasingly sinister references to a ‘benefit performance’, oh and bumping off ardent suitors of Lointaine in ways which look like suicides. So you know just the usual everyday conundrums… Though it seems Fandorin’s biggest problem will be grappling with his own feelings, which seem to have come boldly alive again after so many years of schooling himself in operating in a rational and emotionless manner, bringing the series back full circle almost to the first book in the series.
So from this brief synopsis you may think that the reader knows too much and has it all figured out before Fandorin, who is certainly portraying as a much more vulnerable and fallible version of himself. But beware! Not everything is what it seems and this reader was certainly fooled as to what was going on and who was orchestrating it all. Equally I know that romance elements in mysteries are not always appreciated, as in fairness they can often be added in an overly predictable and perfunctory way. Yet again I would say that is not the case here. Yes there are typical Jane Austen like misunderstandings, but the way this component is intertwined into the narrative is far more natural and organic in Akunin’s hands. I think this is because that Akunin is not wholly a mystery writer, as his bibliography attests to. Whilst with all genre fiction there are formulaic parts, I find with Akunin that he never lets his style go stale, stagnant or static. The only way I can think to describe it at the moment is that there is an evolutionary skill to his writing style and that he is comfortable writing across many genres, (as the appendix to today’s read shows – I’ll say no more…)
Although the Fandorin series is a historical one I find that Akunin’s work, like Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series, speaks to our current culture and political/social climate. In this book this is most strongly felt in the opening which considers terrorism as a political action and how it should be responded to, in particular examining ethical implications. Furthermore, corruption at the job is also a disease infecting the culture Fandorin is in. In the hands of some writers these themes would be overdone and belaboured over far too many pages, standing detached from the rest of the plot. Once more this is not the case with Akunin who weaves such ideas concisely but powerfully into his story. But then I have always felt that Akunin is great at depicting his settings, in terms of the historical time period, the changing cultures at that time, the technological advancements such as the rise of the cinema and its tensions with theatre, politics and location – yet without bogging the reader down in immensely descriptive paragraphs which send you to sleep.
Fans of the theatre and its milieu in fiction will be pleased to know that Akunin recreates such a setting deftly, especially the members of the theatrical troupe, with the tensions that so easily arise between them, as well as the way it becomes hard to separate the members off stage, from the character parts they act on stage. Like with so many of the Fandorin novels this story runs the fall gamut of emotions: sadness, laughter, joy etc., for the reader as well as the characters. For me it seems impossible to not become emotionally involved in the book, hence my suggestion of reading the books in order.
So unsurprisingly this book gets a big thumbs up from me and it was definitely worth the wait. I would like to make a point of also congratulating the translator of the work, Andrew Bromfield, who has translated this book so well. Not knowing Russian I can’t comment on the accuracy, but what I do know is that he makes every sentence a delight to read. I don’t often say this about a book, but the prose is beautiful, making you to want to read it slowly rather than race through it at 90 miles an hour. This is a mystery novel which gives you more than a mystery, yet avoids the pitfall of overwhelming a mystery plot with dull padding.
All there is left to say is that I am almost feeling bereft now that I have once more run out of English copies of Akunin’s work. So feel free to cheer me up by telling me more of the works are being translated soon?
Post Script: Managed to cheer myself up by some further googling and found that Black City the next novel in the Fandorin series will be appearing next November.
About armchairreviewerQualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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