Back to Moscow came all wrapped up in orange ribbon along with a couple of other titles, one of which I had my eye on already thanks to Twitter. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. Inevitably there’s a mention of A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops in the press release but this isn’t a thriller – it’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD in Russian literature more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to. A kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like. It’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.
The novel opens in 1999. Martin has left Amsterdam, thrown out by his Russian girlfriend, and has found himself a scholarship to fund his doctorate on Chekov. He’s a little disconsolate. It’s been a lonely two weeks at the beginning of term but when he meets Colin and Diego in the student canteen the party begins. There’s always a party in Moscow if you’re an expat, so it seems, always a beautiful woman to take home for the night looking for opportunities. Martin and his ‘brothers’ are having the time of their lives, constantly on the razzle. Very little in the way of studying gets done, particularly when Martin picks up a lucrative part-time job with a Russian friend, posing as a Western businessman at his friend’s many meetings striking deals for this and that. Martin entertains an endless stream of ‘dyevs’ each one more gorgeous than the last, finding a way of working them into his ‘research’ and dallying with the idea of love with Lena but when he meets Tatyana it seems it may be time for him to grow up.
Martin is looking back on his time in Moscow and we know from the start that things won’t end well; hardly surprising for a novel steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium. Each section of the book begins with a short, snappy exposition of a book from the canon illustrating the national temperament – the ‘Mysterious Russian Soul’ as so many Russians Martin meets call it. Time and time again he’s told that life’s not all about the pursuit of happiness which he and his friends have immersed themselves in. Erades vividly evokes a city awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. This is not a city for independent women – the ‘dyevs’ are often treated with contempt, interchangeable beauties simply there for sex and decoration while the only woman who is prepared to face Martin with the unvarnished truth is dumpy and a little plain. Martin mentions his plans to write a fictionalised story of his time in Moscow several times and I couldn’t help but notice that the well-travelled Erades spent some time in Russia. Not sure what I think about that but I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.