Sunday 6 February 2011

Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

Turkish Gambit is an enjoyable spy adventure set during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877.  This was my first read for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, hosted by Black Sheep Dances.  I wanted to choose something different and new to me.  By this I mean a book that is neither one of the great classics nor about or from the Soviet era.  So after a bit of research I came up with Turkish Gambit which was first published in 1998.  And a very fine book it is too.
Turkish Gambit is billed as a spy adventure, though not that much action or adventure place.  It is also one of the Erast Fandorin series of detective novels, though he does not feature too prominently in the book.  The action takes place in what is now Bulgaria at a crucial juncture in the Russo - Turkish war of 1877-1878.   The Russian advance is held up by stiffer than expected Turkish resistance and it becomes clear that someone among the Russians has been leaking information to the Turks.  Cue for our hero, Erast Fandorin to take centre stage and solve the mystery.
However it is one of the many surprises of the novel that he does no such thing.  Though he does of course in the end uncover the dastardly culprit, he is never really the central character in the novel.  This, rather comes in the lovely form of Varvara Andreevna Suvorova - Varya to her friends.  She is a young, naive yet feisty and forceful woman who turns out to be the main character in the novel.  She has embarked on a dangerous and foolhardy journey all the way from St Petersburg to the war front to meet up with her fiancé, who has a minor post as a cryptographer in the army.  On her way she gets robbed of all her possessions and finds herself in the middle of a skirmish with Turkish irregulars.  Her rescuer is of course Erast Fandorin.
Once in the Russian camp she is ordered to remain there as Fandorin’s assistant.  In this role she gets involved in all the main incidents and actions during the rest of the novel.  As just about the only young and attractive woman in the camp she is of course actively sought out by all the dashing and not so dashing men at the camp.   Though the action moves slowly this allows Akunin to focus more on the wonderful and motley array of soldiers and hangers on, including war corespondents who make up the entourage of the army HQ.  Thus we get to know some interesting and lively characters not just from all over the Russian Empire, but from Greece, France and Great Britain.  Some of these characters are of course possible suspects as the Turkish spy.    And as in all good mystery novels we get led up the garden path by one red herring after another until the unexpected final denouement.
Boris Akunin is the nom de plume of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili who hails from Georgia, but has resided in Moscow since 1958.  He is well known expert on Japan and Akunin is a Japanese word that can be translated loosely as villain.  Turkish Gambit is the second novel in the Erast Fandorin series, all set in Imperial Russia.   I now look forward to reading some more of his adventures.
Turkish Gambit has been turned into a film in Russia.  Boris Akunin adapted his novel for the film which came out in 2005.  Alas, I have not yet managed to find a copy here in the UK.  At least not one with English subtitles.  Though it seems there is a version on Google videos.  You can try it here.  The first of the Erast Fandorin mysteries, The Winter Queen, is due to be filmed in English starring Milla Jovovich.  Filming is due to start in 2012.  Perhaps more will come to the screen.

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