The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 14, 2011

Akunin at Foyles

Boris Akunin was at Foyles yesterday. You know, the biggest bookshop in Europe. On Charing Cross Road. It hosted Russia's biggest author. Akunin's not physicall big, unlike the bookstore. In the world of letters, though, he is a giant.

I'm sure you've heard of him and his prolific list of entertaining and sophisticated works of fiction - historical novels and novellas featuring crimebusters and cemeteries. His real name is Grigori Chkhartishvili, which he uses only for serious works of non-fiction; works, he said, that are as difficult to read as his last name is to pronounce. He was interviewed by his old friend Tibor Fischer, an English writer and critic best known for writing that the thuggish fans of Millwall were completely outclassed by Hungarians years ago, when Millwall played a Hungarian club 1.

Akunin's known Fischer for over seventeen years; he was instrumental in Fischer's works getting translated into Russian. Akunin himself is a famous literary translator into Russian, notably from the Japanese. He was interested in Japan from early childhood, he said, when his teacher divided the countries of the world among his classmates for a news project, and he ended up with Tunisia and Japan. He found little of interest in the press for the former, but there were stories of Yukio Mishima's hara-kiri that fascinated him, and launched him on the road to Japanophilia. Among his happiest subsequent achievements was his translation of Mishima's books into Russian.

Although Erast Fandorin appears to have an English sensibility, being a mix of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, he really is a samurai who obeys the doctrine of fidelity to conscience more than to his master. Akunin's not religious, but he obviously admires men of conscience; this applies, for example, to his support for the (falsely, he says) imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkhovsky.

On the other hand, despite his personal irreligiousness, he has created a set of supernatural works starring the nun Pelagia. The last one in the trilogy is particularly somber, which he admitted goes against the grain of Akunin's oeuvre. People read Akunin to be entertained, not to be hit on the head with a hammer. He should have used another pseudonym if he wanted to write serious fiction, he opined.

(Despite the general Pelagic spirituality, I enjoyed her second outing (Pelagia And The Black Monk) - I've mentioned it before. Akunin's playfulness is in full spate here, especially with his references to Masha and glowing rocks; it was particularly satisfying for me to recognise Marie Curie and radioactivity in these allusions.)

Playfulness abounds in Akunin's works. He said he found it easy to imitate nearly any author's style; it's his own, Chkhartishvili's, that is otiose and dry. He only works an hour or so in the mornings and perhaps an hour or so in the afternoons, he said, and spends the rest of the time recharging his batteries. This period of gathering his strength no longer involves reading books - that was his main pastime in the last century.

If you named a country, he'd be able to recall an author from there that he enjoyed. Fischer (of Hungarian descent) asked what Hungarians he could name. Akunin went into a pensive coma. Good question, he said presently. Esterhazy?

Very good, said Fischer, a cultured choice.

But then Akunin responded 'Arundhati Roy' when someone asked about Indian authors, and the sheen slightly tarnished.

Sometime in the late 1990s, he said - addressing those in the audience older than 40 - he observed that he could classify the people he had known into sixteen types. You know what I mean, he said, you meet a new person and within moments you are able to tell what sort of a person she is, and what she is likely to say in a given circumstance. Then he learned that there's a post-Jungian psychological theory called socionics that does exactly the same, which somewhat dished him: his discovery wasn't new, after all.

There are only twelve psychological types, Fischer quipped then. No, no, said Akunin. You just haven't met the other four. But I'm two years older than you, so you still have time.

Akunin's plan was to write sixteen novels - the Erast Fandorin cycle - in which each personality type is addressed. This was news to me as I always thought that he intended to write each book in a particular sub-genre of thriller fiction, such as espionage, the locked-room, the high society murder, and so on. Akunin said that he could accurately place any individual into the relevant socionic type by finding out which Fandorin novels they liked most and least. And because people are lemmings, immediately the audience piped up to find out their own types by offering their favourite and detested Fandorin book.

Akunin's a sardonic self-deprecating and humorous man with strong opinions. Piracy in Russia is rampant, he said, and how to protect oneself against it when the police is corrupt, the judiciary crooked, and people don't care for the law. He scoffed at someone's suggestion that piracy was probably inherited from the tradition of samizdat of Soviet times. Romantic nonsense, those pirates are too young to have ever heard of it, he said. His solution was to offer digital books in an inexpensive format that obviated piracy. It is something he is working on, he said.

Someone wanted to know why the films made of his early books were so varied in quality and style. Well, he said, he is a control freak and when producers came knocking on his door, he insisted on full control: he wanted to choose the actors, the director, write the screenplays, and wouldn't brook any changes. Go to hell, said the producers, and didn't approach him for several years. A particularly smart fellow then agreed to all his terms and went on thereafter to do whatever he fancied. When Akunin objected, he said Boris, you are an executive producer, you should come over to the sets and we'll discuss and make whatever changes you want. When Akunin realised that that meant travelling into deepest darkest Russia, he decided it wasn't worth the trouble, and producers thenceforth no longer feared him, but signed him up on his conditions and did whatever they wanted.

And so there you have it.


[1] What Fischer wrote was:
Lewisham, a West Ham fan talking of England's visit to Hungary in 1983, says "the local government were considering calling the troops to sort us out". No, Lewisham, they weren't. England's hooligans have always come off worst against Hungary's own distinguished tradition of football violence. I have particularly fond memories of Millwall fans begging for mercy.


Space Bar said...

It sounds like one heck of a session. Were you one of those who confessed which book(s) you liked most and least? What type are you?

Fëanor said...

No, no, I kept stolidly quiet throughout.

Anonymous said...

Hah, agree with the Arundhati Roy comment! Realised I had actually read 4 of his Fandorin books and stalled on the 5th.

Fëanor said...

I'm waiting for the latest to be available at the library! Are you planning to write up your views on the Akunin session?

Anonymous said...

And I went for one reading yesterday. Some chap who was about 15 but at least sincere. And one pretentious **** who was asking the questions and one equally painful moderator.

So I did what anyone would do in this situation. Constantly texted someone at the back of the room to tell them all of the above.

Lets switch places next time?

Fëanor said...

Anon: you should have tweeted, innit? Why text when you can tweet?

Anonymous said...

I'm no twit!


Anonymous said...

I am. Will link to you:) Saw Turkish Gambit was on sale at my library for 40p. Was tempted to buy but thought I should just read the ones I haven't read yet.

Post a Comment