Before the pogroms and turbulence of Soviet Russia, the tenement buildings of Moscow were impressive, to say the least. Heavily fortified with guilt cornices, columns standing-guard at the entrances; each building was a lesson in defending ones honour through conspicuous wealth.
Happily, much of these architectural details have survived the years, albeit the majority require immediate restoration. The insides, however, have changed dramatically. Pre-revolution the reception rooms were a-buzz with a constant flow of people: the maids and cooks muscle-weary from their chores, the smells changing with each task – sometimes pleasant but often not – always the option, though, of retreating to privacy and solitude in the many upper rooms.
Such extravagance of space and industry is not an option in post-Soviet Russia.
Vyacheslav Pyetsukh makes the claustrophobic post-Soviet atmosphere quite literal, as several families now occupy the space where formerly there was one. To describe the families as vying for calm and space in the remodelled tenement would be a comical description – they fight and desperately argue each day over the most basic of necessities – yet, Pyetsukh makes it comical.
Each room contains a ‘family’; some families are made of a grandmother, daughter, husband and children. Another ‘family’ is a cranky old gentleman who cares for a store of pickling jars as if they were an expectant wife. He covers them with his mattress and counts them everyone morning and night.
Waking early doesn’t help ease the strain. Tenants find the communal latrine occupied by a precocious child pretending to read the newspaper. It doesn’t help that the child is asleep and the newspaper upside down, but they dare not disturb his morning ablutions.
Pyetsukh makes eye-watering poverty bearable. His characters and the scenes he sets are fundamentally enjoyable despite the circumstances, absurdity is common, and carefully developed throughout is an abundance of pathos and a care in showing lightness even during the darkest times.
It also helps that this is a murder mystery, in the campest, most delicious way.
Space is tight, disagreements are a daily occurrence, and added to this melting pot is the disappearance of the landlady – the catalyst that turns an otherwise argumentative bunch into suspected murderers. All are implicated in her vanishing as every tenant stands to gain from the ballot for her room.
Two protagonists – would-be Holmes and Watson, if not for the fact that they are also tenants – raise an eyebrow to the situation and attempt to unravel the mystery, out of boredom as much as anything else.
Their gallows-humour is verdant, helping Nikita Ivanovich Belotsvetov and Vasily Chinarikov to steal the show in this thin but by no means short book. Their dialogue is fiery and rapacious, as well as filled with the exegesis and experimentation you would expect from Russian writing.
The equivalent is an Agatha Christie novel where the room is filled with all the guests of a party and one of them must be the killer – plus they all have long names, big beards and say samovar a lot.
Although the dialogue can be winding and the poverty feels anachronistic at times, there is as much to be said about Pyetsukh’s ingenuity as there was for Dostoyevsky’s in writing Crime and Punishment, on which Pyetsukh’s is loosely based.
Even without this comparison, there are dramatic parallels to be drawn between The New Moscow Philosophy and the great titles of Russian literature. His humour is traditional, but thrilling and foreboding in ways that Dostoyevsky and Gogol may have found difficult. A grain of wheat is a sorry affair, a child’s sticky hand is a weapon; such images are not naturally drawn but fall completely in synch with Pyetsukh’s scenarios.
Any Cop?: Happy is the reader who grasps the sorrow of this book as gravy for the meaty humour. With that recipe, Pyetsukh’s future popularity can be certified.
Charles J Haynes