Guillermo Erades’s cleverly satisfying first novel, Back to Moscow, dangles any number of tantalizing expectations in front of the reader, not only about Russia, post-Communism’s collapse, but also in the late nineteenth century when the country’s greatest writers (Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev) were at the peak of their literary successes. The writer, born in Spain, has been a diplomat in several of the world’s major capitols, including Moscow. His narrative follows a young man in his mid-twenties, as he leaves his home in Amsterdam and goes to Moscow on a graduate fellowship, not only intending to improve his Russian but write his dissertation on women in the country’s great literary works by the five writers mentioned above.
Rarely have I encountered such a confluence of characters, drawn not only from the literary works the narrator plans to study but also from the Russian women he pursues during his graduate work in Moscow. Rather quickly after his arrival, Martin decides that in order to understand the literary heroines for his critical work, he should first be involved with actual, living Russian women. Unfortunately, the only ones he knows are those he can pick up at clubs and bars. They’re called dyevs, beautiful women who may not exactly be whores but are available at the clubs where single men go for liquor and sex. These women, ideally, hope to catch a husband. And Martin, like so many students in European countries (and Russia apparently), goes out drinking virtually every evening with little concern for his studies. Instead, he gets wasted, almost every night.
The women have come from all over Russia to Moscow, the light that attracts them. Since the time is right after the collapse of Communism, Martin makes a number of cutting observations. “Every passenger in Moscow’s metro seemed deeply unhappy.” That unhappiness reflects the situation of so many of the female characters in the literary works he has been studying. Chekhov’s Three Sisters is central here and the source of the novel’s title. This is how Martin describes the work: “In 1900, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, by that time very sick of living in Yalta, wrote a play about three sisters who were stuck in a provincial shithole and spent their days dreaming about moving back to Moscow. Three Sisters: A Drama in Four Acts is not a story of sweeping mad love or tragedy. It’s about boredom and dullness and the futility of pursuing happiness.”
Moscow, for Martin, is a wild place. One of his friends describes what it’s like after the collapse of Communism: “We’re in the midst of a social and sexual revolution. Moscow is a jungle, man. People just care about getting rich and getting laid. Money and sex. It’s all knew to them.” Getting to know Russian women takes almost all of Martin’s time. “Why should I bother with dusty old literary theories…when I can spend my time reading Chekhov and meeting real women?” There are hilarious scenes with his tutor at the university, where Martin reveals that he is not doing any of the reading necessary for his dissertation.
Yet, his familiarity with the great Russian writers makes it obvious that the women he runs around with are long-suffering like the heroines of Russian classics. Both have realized that happiness is not what life brings them, but, instead, survival—with a good bit of pain. And as for liberated women (which he tends to think of the dyevs he has quickie affairs with), well, they are hardly that at all. All they want is to get married, raise children, and let their husbands be part of the workforce. The last woman Martin has an affair with confesses to him, “I’m Russian…. I don’t believe in this equality thing between men and women. We are not equal, you and me, we want different things in life. I don’t want to be a man any more than you want to be a woman.” She wants to fit within the traditional roles that men and women have played. Still, Martin realizes that women, especially, are part of the “Mysterious Russian Soul….a deep spiritual sorrow…worth pursuing in itself. Beautiful, self-inflicted pain.”
During his three years in Moscow, Martin begins to detect major changes in the city and the country. Terrorism (Chechen) is on the rise; the women are becoming a little more anxious than they were. Even Martin begins to tire of so many nights returning home drunk and constantly moving from one woman to the next. He begins, in fact, to make a commitment to one woman, Tatyana, and even considers remaining in Russia the rest of his life. Then the story takes a totally unexpected turn, tying together an incident from Martin’s earlier, pre-Moscow life, when he lived in Amsterdam, involving a relationship with a woman there (ironically a Russian woman). And then Erades injects an overwhelming incident that alters everything for his young man who believed that he had finally discovered the soul of his adoptive country and its foundation in traditional women. The scene blew me away and—if nothing else—demonstrates how our lives are never in our own control, no matter how carefully we have tried to avoid the unexpected. Back to Moscow is quite an imaginative trip.
Guillermo Erades: Back to Moscow
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 371 pp., $26