Sunday, November 18, 2012
Snowdrops and my fascination with Russia
RUSSIA IS ONE of the places I'd like to visit someday, if God allows it.1 I want to photograph the Kremlin, walk around The Red Square, smell the vodka on people's breaths, and freeze myself to death in the cold of winter.
Not knowing what it was about, I randomly picked A. D. Miller's novel, Snowdrops, from the list of unread books I have. Well, guess what: snowdrop is a Moscow slang for a corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.
An Englishman, Nick Platt, is narrating. He's an expat lawyer who has lived in Russia for four years. He's thirty-something, and he works for international banks that lend money to Russian businesses. The oil boom in the world's largest country is making a lot of people rich.
Nick is pretty much a single man. He has lots of money, which sustains his rather decadent lifestyle, but he's lonely. One day, on the train, he meets a young woman named Masha, "wearing tight, tight jeans tucked into knee-high brown leather books, and a white blouse with one more button undone than there needed to be." Even if she's only 23 years old, she becomes the love of his life—and I think, even with all the deception, betrayal, and hurt that came with her, Nick still loved her in the end.
I've read about Russia in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I'm a fan of Russian writers, by the way. There's too much bleakness and depression in their books, so much so that the real world appears better somehow. Reading Snowdrops isn't any different, only that the Russia being described is the modern-day version: drunk taxi drivers, government corruption, the hard, cold winter that feels like forever. A.D. Miller takes the reader to the subways, the Russian countryside, the bars, and the streets where, true enough, some bodies emerge after the winter ends. I haven't seen snow—a fact that shocked some Russians I met when I visited Leiden—but I could feel it through Nick's narration.
I'm often curious what it feels like to live elsewhere—some place different where no one knows me, where the sun is hardly ever seen, like in Iceland, for example. And it's not even because of the money. Reading about Nick Platt's ordeals and every day experiences has given me a vicarious experience of the expat life, and I truly wish I get to visit Russia someday.
1. I guess my fascination with Russia started with me memorizing the meaning of U.S.S.R. in first grade after I had chanced upon it in my mother's Encyclopedia Americana collection. I tried learning Cyrillic, the Russian system of writing, early on, but I'm afraid I don't remember much anymore. And then there was volleyball: the Russian women's team became my second favorite (Cuba being the first). I watched all the matches in ESPN, when the channel still showed them, and the game hadn't adopted the rally-point system yet. I remember how tall, pretty, and strong the girls were. At the time Elena Godina was only 19 years old, but her spikes were tremendous. Team captain Evgenya Artamonova was amazing, too, with the mole on her chin; her back row attacks were hard to block. Their coach was Nikolai Carpol, who always fumed in anger whenever he called for a time out. I felt sorry for the team but cheered for the rest of them anyway—except when they were against Cuba.↩