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The less you know...
on October 17, 2011
Moscow at the turn of this century could be a dangerous place: almost anything could be bought or extracted for a price, and many people were, for one reason or another, in on some deal or scheme to get ahead in the business of money, comfort or influence. Life was also fragile, people disappeared without a trace, only to turn up as "snowdrops" during the spring thaw. With his debut novel, SNOWDROPS, AD Miller delves into the unfettered, yet also manipulated, period of early capitalism in Russia that followed the collapse of the Soviet regime. Part crime, part love story, Miller's fast-paced, fluidly written and engaging novel combines these elements within a chilling psychological portrait of an expatriate corporate lawyer, who has been living comfortably in "wild Moscow". Miller's book is on the shortlist for this year's Man Booker Prize.
These are the Russian "gold-rush days", and Nick, Nicolai Ivanovich to the locals, a British lawyer, is caught up in financial and other dealings in more ways than one. Despite slowly realizing that all may not be as it appears with his new girlfriend, Masha, her sister Katya and Tatiana Vladimirovna, their aunt, and warnings from his cynical journalist friend, Steven Walsh, he cannot extricate himself from their influence. Rather, Nick prefers to adopt the popular advice of the day "the less you know, the longer you live".
In his business dealings Nick is as gullible, going with the flow: "Money in Moscow had its own particular habits", he muses by way of explanation and justification for his actions. "Money knew that someone in the Kremlin might decide to take it back at any moment..." Nick writes his story with hindsight, confessing "all, as honestly as I can", to his soon to be wife (he hopes). He admits to her that he was terribly naïve and totally in love with the mysterious Masha. He was blinded by his urge to "find the one", who would take him out of his pathetic early midlife crisis mood. He is still drawn to his life in Moscow, despite everything. Moscow can have that effect on those who have spent time there...
AD Miller evidently knows those effects. His intimate knowledge - as correspondent for The Economist - of Moscow and Russia, its diversity of peoples, and its sociopolitical reality of the time, adds to the story's authenticity and makes the locales more than a backdrop, but rather a lively participant in the unfolding human dramas. While we readers are fully absorbed in the novel's events, sometimes understanding earlier than the protagonist the associations between different people's actions, I could not help also thinking of developments beyond the confines of Russia and the early twentieth century. Many of the issues that Miller touches on are with us, even if in different, more subtle or hidden forms. [Friederike Knabe]