“What will William Ryan do with Korolev’s dilemma, as the 30s in the Soviet Union grind on into more and more terrible times?” This was the question I asked at the end of my recent review of William Ryan’s first novel The Holy Thief, set in Moscow in 1936.
Now, in The Bloody Meadow, it is a year later and we are well into the most intense period of repression and persecution, time of the infamous 1937/38 purges when Nicolai Yezhov or Ezhov was head of the Soviet Secret Police, the NKVD. The Bloody Meadow takes place in the Ukraine, and we never actually encounter the dreaded Ezhov, but his shadow hangs over the novel, and it is Ryan’s Ezhov who sets the plot in motion. It is at his behest that our Moscow police detective, Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, is dispatched to Odessa to investigate the apparent suicide of a young woman, Maria Lenskaya, a film production assistant working on the film, The Bloody Meadow. She has been found hanging in the dining room of an old manor house, now an agricultural college, where the cast and crew of the film are staying, and she happens to be a special friend of Ezhov’s. Discretion, extreme discretion, is urged upon Korolev by his immediate superior, Rodinov of the NKVD, who wants the investigation of the suicide to be directly under his jurisdiction, i.e. not in the hands of the local militia. And here we are right away in the heart of Korolev’s dilemma. The scene of the crime, a manor house with a ready-made group of suspects in place, seems traditional enough. But Korolev is in a very different place from a traditional detective. How is he going to conduct a thorough and honest investigation of a suspected crime, when his superiors who hold his career and indeed his life in their hands seem to want a certain outcome from the investigation and when he, Korolev, does not even know what it is?
Korolev is a decent man, a man at any rate who wants to be decent and do a good job, and he has a limited capacity for deviousness. He does know how to “keep his face expressionless” and he does this quite often when faced with dubious propositions whose outcomes he cannot quite fathom. He has a dogged, conscientious approach to the pursuit of criminals that is no different from that of policemen in run-of-the-mill detective stories: His job is to “establish possibilities and then prove or disprove them;” it was “going to be a question of “gathering information from interviews, analyzing it, then exploring the lines of enquiry it suggested;” he must investigate the case to the best of his ability, “put the evidence together, sift it, weigh it and come to conclusions, same as he always did.” He has few illusions about himself, about what he sees in the mirror, “an average man; not ugly, not good-looking, no genius but no idiot either.”
So what is it about this average man, going about the business of detection in a conventional, methodical way, that for me puts the suspense level from the beginning notches higher than many other detective stories, that keeps me on the edge of my seat, very involved with him as a human being, urgently wanting him to succeed . . . and to survive. Korolev is a likable guy, yes, in a hateful time, and Ryan succeeds brilliantly once again in this novel in transporting his readers to his 1930’s Russia, conjuring up an amazing cast of characters, some historical figures, some based on historical figures, some purely imagined, and all moving around on the chess board of the mystery, gradually, piece by piece, giving the game away. But it is Korolev’s dilemma that draws me back into his world, prepared to face the horrors of it again, in order to see how this man juggles his two levels of consciousness, the inner and the outer, coming through to a kind of justice, not selling his own soul, but not satisfying his conscience either.
Korolev is not the only character in the novel who is juggling various levels of consciousness. The film which gives the novel its name alludes to Eisenstein’s repeatedly edited, changed, and repressed film, Bezhin Meadow, though Ryan does not use Eisenstein as a character as he does Babel, who in fact did work on the screenplay of Eisenstein’s film. Our film director in the novel, Savchenko, is having difficulties making the kind of film his political bosses want him to make. As was Eisenstein’s film, Savchenko’s The Bloody Meadow, is based on a famous story of a boy who denounces his father for counter-revolutionary behavior and who is murdered by his family in revenge for this act of betrayal. The act of betrayal, as seen by the family, is to be portrayed as an act of heroism, the boy a martyr in his loyalty to the State and the Party.
Savchenko is having difficulty making this message clear in his film and the suggestion is made that some citizens, Korolev among them, “might just harbor the suspicion that the brat had got what was coming to him.” Such suspicions are voiced publicly by nobody, certainly not by Korolev. Nor are his suspicions that “they might talk like Bolsheviks, but in their hearts, Russians would always be Believers.” In this novel, as in the last one, the paradoxes surrounding the belief in God and the belief in the Soviet State abound – the believing (Christian, vicious) Thieves of Moscow, again play a crucial part in the plot of the novel, and the amazing chase and shoot-out in the labyrinthine passages underlying Odessa ends with a classic crisis of conscience on Korolev’s part which you will have to read for yourselves.
There is no end to the central mystery of this novel. Yes, the case is solved. We know by the end who committed the act of murder. We know, more or less, who was sleeping with whom. We, and Korolev, know who are the counter-revolutionaries, who are the Ukrainian patriots, who are the Party loyalists; the complicated plot has been worked through to its surprising conclusion, but the real surprise, for us and for Korolev, is ultimately in the hands of Rodinov, of Ezhov, of the powers that hold all these little people in their hands. Or, we think with hope, do not have complete hold of them because there is still Korolev who will, this time, live to see another day.
Note for American readers: The Bloody Meadow will be officially released on January 3, 2012, under the title, The Darkening Field. I do not know why the title had to be changed. The original title retains the allusion to Eisenstein’s film and to the Turgenev story that preceded it. The paperback edition of The Bloody Meadow that I obtained from Amazon is the British edition was published by Mantle in 2011 and it contains a very useful list of characters. This helps a lot in keeping track of the Russian names, patronymics etc. Anyone who wants more background information can find it in William Ryan’s website, where there is very good glossary, pictures etc.
For some very interesting comments by William Ryan on his own work, see interview with him on this blog.