Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev

Sergei Lebedev is an important voice in Russian literature and has garnered a reputation in the US and UK for his novels, oblivion, Fritz the Goose and Year of the Comet. Untraceable will only enhance his reputation; it’s a ‘state of the nation’ novel that melds serious literary themes with the intrigue of a spy thriller. An intense and intelligent novel that maps the political life of modern Russia through its history and relationship with the wider world. The kernel of the novel is the secret bio-warfare programme. Untraceable establishes a chain of events from Stalin to Putin, exploring the mistrust and conservatism behind the Russian desire for a demagogue at the helm with all that entails. This is the panoramic landscape  Lebedev paints, the soul of the Russian nation and its people in thrall to despicable leadership and a cabal of, all too willing, henchmen. Lebedev has a sharp eye for detail and a keen sense of what drives people, he conveys complex meaning with an unerring and pithy precision and does so with style and wit. This is the obverse of the territory le Carré’s inhabited. Untraceable mirrors the Englishman’s intellectual and emotional quest to uncover the perversions of the heart and the mind. Lebedev uncovers the workings of the secret world and it’s links to politicians, scientists, and citizens.

Untraceable will have huge resonance in the west because it deals with the increasingly poisonous relationship between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War, when many thought the rancorous rivalry would end. Sadly, there’s a new Cold War in the making. Russia’s contempt for the West is apparent in its cyber campaigns and, more relevant here, the Sergei Skripal Salisbury poisoning incident and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Lebedev fictional murders provide context for real events, an intelligent and perceptive analysis of what lies behind the headlines.

Untraceable inhabits the grand tradition of Russian literature that questions society and it’s values through a vast array of characters. It is short by the standards of the epic tomes of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, it is nonetheless a comprehensive survey of the state of a nation. A great nation with soul and heart but in the hands of gangsters, (I make no comment about higher values or morality in the West by the way).

Vyrin is old, he feels it most in the summer, the time of year he defected, got a new face and a new identity. He’s still haunted by the existence of his file in a secret Russian archive which speaks of his betrayal – a reminder of his existence for his enemies at home. The information he sold would have been out of date pretty soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union so he had to act quickly, irrevocably. In Russia there is only loyalty or disloyalty, no grey areas.

“…a dossier, he thought, is not a duplicate of life. It is a special, dark, truncated twin, fabricated from denunciations, stolen, eavesdropped words, covertly observed scenes; the source of the secret, evil power comprising the ability to tear off the protective covers of quotidian life.”

Vyrin turned in his colleagues for their links to scam businesses and money laundering, then it didn’t seem such a big a deal, but now they are the power and they have long memories and a long reach. Vyrin is suspicious of everyone, he knows uncertainty born of fear. If they find him they will kill him.

The Soviet Union is gone, the Party Committee gone, but the secret numbered department remains; no records of membership, unacknowledged but still working for the cause. Two generals discuss the murder of the defector;

“However, their language, laden with professional euphemisms, deceitful by nature, allowed the men to formulate sentences so that they could be interpreted as expressing either conviction or doubt.”

They speculate on the poison, could this be Kalitin’s Neophyte? If so, why? Lieutenant Colonel Shershner is a reliable man, a veteran of Chechnya and Syria. A man with a dirty past and a flexible conscience, Shershner will find Kalitin.

Kalitin became a scientist at Sovetsk-22, a place that never existed, a walled city where everyone worked for the Institute. Uncle Igor, a man of many guises, ran the city, he took the boy under his wing. Kalitin didn’t have the weakness of his father when it came to the work they must do.

Untraceable is a cold cynical view of the world of spies, politicians and puppets from the darkest moments of the Cold War to the present day. This is a novel of ethics and obsession, of entrenched divisions and how power resides in the wrong hands. A devastating portrait of modern Russia a nation manacled to its bellicose past. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis.

New Vessel Press, paperback, ISBN 9781939931900, out 2/2/21

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