WORDS BY SOPHY KOHLER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT
Snowdrops, the debut novel of British author and journalist A.D. Miller, was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2011. The book is a portrait of a morally-compromised post-Soviet Moscow but, more significantly, it is a character sketch of Nick Platt, an English lawyer living and working in the city, who is seduced by the cold and enigmatic Masha, and chooses to turn a blind eye to a world of lies.
Did you ever think about writing a non-fiction account of your time in Russia?
There are a lot of journalists who write books about Moscow and Russia. I didn’t really feel that I had anything to add. I’m not a great expert on Russia; I tried my best to be a good correspondent. The thing about Russia is there’s a lot about it that is difficult to write about, factually and in general. This is true of all places, actually, but maybe particularly true in a place where there’s such a gap between reality and surface, in the sense that it’s a very opaque place in which even the most dramatic public events are often incredibly difficult to fathom. One of the first articles I wrote in Moscow was about a guy discovering a corpse and the struggle to identify who this corpse was, whether it was the person he said it was. Actually it wasn’t, because the guy was six inches shorter than the corpse.
Russia is a murky place, where it’s hard to get to the bottom of things. Something terrible happened just as I arrived in Moscow – the Beslan school shooting, where terrorists took over that school in southern Russia and shot several hundred people, mostly children. Pretty clear what happened, though? Well, no. It’s clear that terrorists took over the school and committed appalling acts of terrorism, of murder. But how many were there, how did they get there, how did they get the weapons there, how did they cross the internal borders that they needed to to get there, why did the hostage-taking end in a siege, who shot first, why did the Russian armed forces behave as they did? None of these questions have ever been satisfactorily answered, because the government’s decided that they shouldn’t be answered.
It’s a difficult place to write about with any sense of certainty that you’re getting it right and it’s often difficult to prove things, so you end up writing about things euphemistically. In this book – which is, of course, a book about people and not about Putin or terrorists – I was trying to write about some aspects of life in Russia that are more difficult to write about in non-fiction.
Have you been criticised for writing about Russia as an outsider?
A bit, but I was a journalist there for a few years and I used to get it every week. When you wrap up an article, someone will write to you and say, “Who the hell are you?”. I’m used to that. Some Russians have that view to which, I guess, there are a few responses. The foreigners in this book are just as culpable and as morally compromised as the Russians, so this isn’t a question of one nationality being morally superior to another; in the end the book’s about Nick more than it’s about Russia. It is a character study about this one ordinary-seeming individual and what happens to him and how he describes it – the book is told in his voice, not in the writer’s voice; it’s his grammar and cultural references, his illusions and opinions about Russia but also about women, which are offered to the reader for their judgment. He is the ultimate subject.
Do you think that for Nick, Russia is a place where the rules of society, the rules of ordinary living, are suspended – he can behave a bit differently, let himself go a bit?
I think the rules are different in Russia. But Nick is in a different situation because, like a lot of expats, he behaves as if he’s on holiday and as if his actions don’t really have consequences. He behaves as if the people and the things around him are not real, as though somehow he’s in a kind of theme park. And that’s how a lot of expats behave – in Moscow and elsewhere. But also he’s in a place where he’s not known, where he can be whoever he wants to be; economically he has more status and power than he might in London, and he has opportunities among women that he wouldn’t have had in London. So, for him, it’s a sort of liberating environment, both morally and practically.
He is also just one in a long line of much more distinguished expat protagonists – expat novels are good and useful devices to test moral presumptions. This is what Graham Greene was interested in in many of his novels – what happens when you transplant someone to a different environment where the usual constraints and rules don’t apply to them, would they turn out to be better or worse than they expected, better or worse or the same as natives? So I guess it’s a sub-genre in itself that, using protagonists to ask these kinds of moral questions.
Is Nick in any way a version of yourself?
There’s another novelist called Andrew Miller, a bit more established than me, so I decided to retreat into the initials “A. D.”. He has a Facebook page (I also have a Facebook page) and somebody posted on it: “I really enjoyed your book, I do hope it all works out with your fiancé.” I hadn’t expected the extent to which people – I guess, quite naturally – would assume that because outwardly Nick and I are quite similar that this is a kind of obfuscated autobiography. I spent time in Moscow, like Nick, [but] he’s not me — none of this stuff happened to me. There is a lot of personal observation here, if not direct personal experience; I have seen people behaving this way.
These experiences didn’t happen to you, but are any of the events real; did they happen to someone you know or do they happen more generally?
There are two kinds of crime in this book. One is apartment fraud, which is a quintessential post-Soviet crime in Russia. At the end of the Soviet Union, a lot of property in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia was privatised. That created, particularly in central bits of Moscow, a class of people who had incredibly valuable assets, who were often quite old. So suddenly we have suddenly a kind of class of asset-rich people, a load of other people with absolutely nothing, and a system in which the police and the judiciary are 100% corruptible. So, this particular kind of crime (apartment fraud, often accompanied by violence) was, in the ’90s and the noughties – and possibly still today – incredibly common. It’s actually an instructive kind of crime because it tells you something about the inequality that followed the Soviet Union and also the corruption of institutions.
The other kind of crime is dodgy business loans. It’s a sort of reciprocal corruption – it involves both Russian companies and Western banks and other institutions; it’s in everybody’s interest to keep the money flowing. The companies and the deals that are in my book are invented, but this kind of stuff happens; they are not based on individual events, but they are based on real phenomena.
Do you think it’s the space that leads Nick to be involved in a scam or do you think it’s something that he’s capable of himself, that comes from within him?
Well, partly it’s him and his background and his sort of drifting, lonely, disappointed, lecherous and other fairly ordinary feelings and partly it’s Moscow and the incentives he encounters — the fact that it’s a lawless place. But, at the same time, I think you could tell this story about all kinds of different places. You could tell the same story about London, about people believing lies and lying to themselves because it’s to their advantage, or it’s too inconvenient not to. So, I don’t think it’s a Moscow-specific syndrome. Believing that we’re not to blame for our actions, that somebody else is ultimately to blame, that kind of self-deception is quite common and present in all times and places.
Why do you think Nick needs to keep believing the fiction, or ignoring the truth, when he’s clearly being lied to?
Blind-eye turning is quite a common thing. I think people often choose to believe lies, choose to believe in fiction, because it’s convenient. In his case, it’s because he’s having too good a time and he doesn’t want to disrupt it, because he persuades himself that, while something nasty might be happening, it’s probably not that bad and, in any case, it’s not ultimately his fault; he’s just a lawyer, he doesn’t bear ultimate responsibility for whatever might be going down. Professionally, it’s also his job is to make problems go away; his job is not to embrace problems but to minimise them and, if possible, eradicate them.
There’s a good bit at the end of The Wild Duck, the Henrik Ibsen play about the life-lie – if one has lies that they need otherwise they couldn’t carry on. In Nick’s case it’s not quite that dramatic, it’s not that he couldn’t carry on, but he’s preserving the life that he has come to enjoy and so he chooses not to. He’s not naive — he knows the lies are lies, but he prefers to ignore them.
One reviewer described it as staring at something so long that you stop noticing what you’re seeing; do you think that’s accurate?
I think it’s accurate that that can happen. Whether that happens to Nick or not, I don’t know. It’s not so much that he stares at it, it’s more that he averts his eyes; he knows it’s there. It’s definitely true that what he does is quite normal; he behaves in a morally-blind way and one very characteristic of the time in which the book is set – not just the place, but the time. I guess he gets used to the lie; he sort of lives with these lies and he becomes enmeshed in them and they become so familiar to him that he stops regarding them as wrong.
Do you think that this happens within a larger culture of deception in Russia at the time?
I don’t think it’s particularly a Russian phenomenon. The thing about Moscow is not the immorality of the people, but the permissiveness of the system; so the fact that, in a place without rules, in a place that’s governed by power rather than laws, behaving in this morally-blind way can mean worse actions more quickly than it might in another place. I think Nick himself says somewhere in the book that the Russians had a better excuse than him. This is not a book about corrupt Russians. On the contrary, the narrator emerges from it at least as bad as anybody else. Moscow is a permissive environment; it’s an environment in which this kind of behaviour can have more catastrophic or more extreme consequences, because there’s nothing to prevent that happening. But in countries with functioning polices forces or non-corrupt judiciaries there are still bad people in high positions.
The phenomenon of snowdrops – bodies buried in the snow that rise to the surface when the snow thaws – it seems to be a kind of metaphor for other human behaviours, especially the workings of the unconscious; when you push things down they inevitably come back up.
Also that they’re there the whole time, you just didn’t notice them or you chose not to notice them. Actually, the real snowdrop in the book is Nick, the narrator. The thing that’s uncovered at the end of the winter and at the end of the book is him. And what he is capable of doing, going along with, participating in, aspects of himself that he hadn’t previously recognised, but which were always there. It leaves you asking the question, “Is it him or is it Moscow?”. Maybe it’s a bit of both, but he obviously was able to be complicit in evil in a way that he may not previously have recognised. The main job of this metaphor in the book is precisely that, it’s supposed to signify aspects of him that hadn’t previously acknowledged and only really secondarily is it to do with violence, because there’s not a lot of violence in the book. It’s more a psychological metaphor than a criminal one.
Nick tells this story to his fiancé. What is the value of your choice of narration?
If you have a first person narration, it can be useful and enriching to have an implied interlocutor or listener for the story. My hope for it is that the story of the relationship between Nick and his fiancé echoes and reinforces the main Moscow narrative that he tells, because by the end of the book, there’s a noted passive-aggression in the way he interacts with his fiancé. What first seemed like a well-intentioned effort to come clean, by the end seems more complicated than that.This, therefore, contributes to the overall picture of moral decline in the story. Nick’s confession is not really a confession. He knows he’s done something wrong and he feels a bit guilty, but I don’t know whether his guilt is adequate to the events he describes. And guilt, he himself says, is certainly not the principle feeling that his time in Moscow evokes in him. I imagined him enjoying reminiscing on this time as the most exhilarating, alive time of his life.
Snowdrops is published by Atlantic and available from Kalahari.com.