Henry Holt, 2007
When the first description of the main character is, "Dead mother, disappeared father, late-era Soviet poverty, and five years of killing and worse in Chechnya..." you know you are in for a brutal ride and Volk's Game does not disappoint. Alexei Volkovoy, or Volk as he is more commonly known, is just the sort of man you would expect to spring from orphanages of the collapsing Soviet Union, an unrelentingly dark anti-hero whose behavior would make the Man with No Name cringe. Then again this is Russia where things are never black and white, only shades of grey, and thus there are moments where Volk displays his aching humanity. Each moment a little shaft of sunlight that allows the reader to connect with Volk on a very basic level.
In Volk's Game, Volk has been roped into helping an old friend in stealing Da Vinci's Leda and the Swan from a hidden chamber beneath Russia's State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Certainly a simple enough task if you ignore that in order to get the piece out of the museum the thief will have to navigate tunnels which have been submerged under the Neva for decades if not centuries. Once the art is in the open and the Russian's are not anything if not good capitalists, everyone will want a piece of the action. Trust me, before the end, everyone gets their piece.
This is one of the better debut novels I have read. Ghelfi has ably captured the modern Moscow of my imagination, a dark and atmospheric city trapped on the edge of history, caught somewhere between the totalitarian regimes which make up Russia's past and the bright hope of the early '90s tempered through typical Russian fatalism. While the brief plot summary I offer makes the novel sound formulaic and the set-up is, which is one of the reasons we love these sorts of books as readers, the true joy of this novel is the endless rollercoaster of loops and twists which Ghelfi drags Volk through. By the end I was close to needing a flowchart to help me unwind the Gordian knot of relationships which drive the plot to its inevitable, and very Russian, conclusion. While some, particularly The Moscow Times, have been disturbed by the violence in the novel and try to find some flaw with Ghelfi for placing it there, I found it, while cringe-inducing at times, to be very much in-line with what the character might do. Perhaps a little gratuitous at times, but in the end that is how people are and Volk comes across as being a very real person.
One of the things that bothered me about Volk is his charity to other veterans and widows. When I was reading through the book it struck me as a cheap ploy to get us to like Volk, very Robin Hood-esque and noble in its own way. The more I have been thinking about the book the more I come to the conclusion that this is exactly how Volk would behave were he a real person. He had no family. The army is the first opportunity he has to be accepted into something greater than himself and he sacrifices himself to the army, quite literally giving a leg for the cause. After his time in Chechnya all soldiers have become his brothers, sharing a link which runs deeper than true family ties, and because he is ultimately the dutiful son, he takes care of their wives and mothers when they can no longer perform this duty. Ultimately Volk's greatest redeeming quality is that he is the dutiful son, sacrificing for Mother Russia as well as his adoptive family.
If you cannot tell I really enjoyed reading this novel despite the fact that it was a remarkably fast read. (I managed to finish it in less than a day.) If you are a fan of characters like Barry Eisler's John Rain and Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne then Volk is going to be right up your alley. Plus any book that has the pull-quote*, "Brent Ghelfi writes like Dostoevsky's hooligan great-grandson on speed," on the cover is worth checking out, right? (Plus the cats over at Murder by the Book recommended it when I was in there for the Barry Eisler signing and they have really good taste.)
Next up I delve into my slush pile of read books for a review since I have to read and comprehend my SCUBA text by next Tuesday, perhaps I will finally review Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers so I can return it to Scott.
* From master of the genre Lee Child.
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