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A review of Snowdrops by A D Miller


Snowdrops By A D Miller Atlantic Books 273 pages, Rs 299

As far as heroes go Nicholas, an English lawyer who records in venomous detail his life in current day Moscow, is so pusillanimous, he fairly reeks of it. It's hard to separate one's feeling of utter contempt for such a spineless narrator with the authorial stance taken by A D Miller in his debut novel Snowdrops, as he roots into every crevice and cobblestone of the Russian landscape, seeking out the tiniest morsels of stale and decaying food from the dead mouth of the once proud patriarch of Communist ideology, Russia. The moral degradation that Miller, a former Moscow correspondent for the Economist, conjures for the reader is so vividly done, it could serve as a manual, Soviet-style on scams, both institutional and freelance, as Nicholas' great Moscow love-bait Masha and her partner Katya demonstrate during his one year in the city of snow and sleaze.

There are some great moments in the novel when Nicholas conjures up the seductions of the snow covered Russian countryside, the bitter cold that plays a protagonist in so many Russian novels until it becomes a silent collaborator to man's finest and worst aspirations. Nicholas is a graphologist of snow, marking the indentations made by the girls as they walk along the streets of Moscow in their high heels and boots, or the cuneiform impressions left by the birds who have survived the winter, or the exhilaration of a weekend of lust and snow spent in a typical Russian dacha or country cottage with Masha and Katya.

The book effectively demolishes the Dr Zhivago images of the Russian winter and the hardy Russian people, with the haunting music that goes with it. It's an Omar Sharif-Julie Christie moment when Nicholas meets Masha for the first time on a railway platform, but she's wearing dark glasses. Like in Hans Anderson's fairy-tale, she is an empress of ice;she numbs her victims into not feeling.

Since the events are described in retrospect, there is a feeling of complicity in watching them that leaves you feeling both angry and uncomfortable. Particularly so, when towards the end, one of the characters berates Nicholas for imagining that the corruption that allows him to stand aside with a discreetly enunciated but definitively detailed sneer (Miller's stint as a journalist in Moscow shows) with a sudden outburst.

Paolo is an Italian, who has been working alongside Nicholas, part of the wolf pack of international professionals who have been employed by the new dispensation to teach Russians the capitalist way of functioning: "' You think you're so different to him, Nicholas?' he bared his teeth and looked suddenly old in the mauve restaurant light. His grammar seemed to buckle. 'Mr English Gentleman, you think they do things so much differently in London? Yes, they are more subtle, ecco, more nice, more clean' - here he mimed washing his bony hands - but it is the same in Italy also. In everywhere the same. Strong and weak, power and no power, money, money, money. It isn't because of Russia. This is life. My life, Nicholas, and your life also. '"

It may be a true-to-life account that Miller has recorded, but it limps with a surfeit of snow.

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