Monday, February 16, 2009

[rev.] Polar Star

On to another series of detective/murder mystery books. This one by Martin Cruz Smith (presumably no relation). You've no doubt heard of either the book or the movie Gorky Park. I just can't see William Hurt as the detective, Renko. He might have totally nailed the part, but I was just a bit taken aback when I checked out who played him in the movie (which I haven't seen). Apparently Smith caught political flak from the Soviet government after publishing the book. Perhaps that's incentive enough ...? If not, perhaps my opinion might be? It's a good book. It's gripping, the further it gets, the more you wonder about this Renko fellow. Yet I found him rather sympathetic: neither hero nor vilian, just horribly normal.

On to Polar Star:

This is not a movie (and if they make one, they need a younger actor), though it has the substance to make a rather good one, if they could find a director like Peter Weir, who can take a small, isolated environment and make it seem both huge and claustrophobic at the same time.

Renko, the Investigator for the Moscow police, is no longer an Investigator, nor a Party member, and definitely not above suspicion by those from the previous book. He's drifted across Siberia to avoid political problems, arriving on the Polar Star, a fish-processing ship in the Bering Sea. Operating the fishing boats are Americans in a joint-venture with the Soviets (it's now 1989), with the Soviets operating the gigantic processing operation, where Arkady is working on the 'slime line'.

Interest picks up early with (of course) a dead body, one of the crew of the Polar Star, who falls out of the fishing nets one morning. Someone discovers Renko has experience with making little inquiries, and puts him on a one-day task of helping the 3rd mate find out what happened. He sees this as a pleasant respite from gutting fish in a freezing hold. Yet, he points out to the Capitain it would be much simpler if they just told him what the desired result for the investigation; it will increase the probability of them getting it.

Here is a man who is completely aware of the way life in the USSR works, of Justice's frequent sabbatical, and yet who is himself relentless in his pursuit of that ideal.

The story revolves around a man thawing out of his professional funk when he starts pursuing the job he's really good at, in this case, investigating. It's quite interesting to see the gradual change throughout the story of him emerging from his cocoon, the rust sloughing off his police skills.

I'm never quite sure how to take the personality of this Arkady Renko. Is he really the epitome of the Straight Man? Because he assuredly is delivering the straight lines throughout the story. Is it a total lack of humor? Or a completely refined sense of the ridiculous & self-preservation?

As one review put it: [police procedurals] are a way to study human nature under stress, to see how a society worksfrom the inside out and the bottom up. Smith paints a lucid picture of Soviet society at the time (he wrote this in '89, it's not 'retrospective', but a contemporary view). It provides a picture of the USSR struggling with being socialist / communist, and yet seduced to the Dark Side of Sony Walkmans, jogging suits, and Swatch Watches.

Since any browse through a book store will tell you there's another book, it's difficult to avoid the fact that he must live through the book. I still found myself anxiously wondering if he'd live. I find it intriguing that Smith has kept pace with history. There's been 6 books over 26 years:
Gorky Park; Polar Star; Red Square; Havana Bay; Wolves Eat Dogs, and most recently Stalin's Ghost.

2 - sure, go buy it, you'll definitely read it more than once

Review of Gorky Park the movie:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've read "Gorky Park" and seen the movie which was really faithful to the book. William Hurt was excellent, actually. Renko's personality is actually kind of common among Russian men -- Russians are masters at seeing the absurd in a situation as they did under the Soviets, as well as seeing the danger for them. When I first met some Russians who had immigrated here back in the 80's, it was fun to hear them complain that they didn't know how to work the system here, that what they knew how to do wasn't relevant here. They had to find a way to circumvent the Soviet system to get what they wanted without 1)drawing attention to themselves and 2) ending up in the Lubyanka. It's a fascinating mindset....