Looking for a book set in the Wild East
September 13, 2007 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I have this book craving but I really don't know where to start, I just know what I want: urban, cold and miserable - and its set in Russia ( or some Eastern European State ).

So I've tried to parse this sucker down to its core parts:

Its modern, its set in Russia or an eastern European state. Preferably urban, cold and miserable. And mysterious. Somewhere between hard-boiled and cynical. Something about lawlessness gives me the tingles (both the Capone, and the Heart of Darkness kind) Preferably contemporary. Any genre is fine. Fiction or not - I do want a narrative though.

Bonus points if it doesn't treat the setting like a tourist trap - stereotyping the landscape with cliché. (I'll be bringing my own thank you, so I'd prefer my author to have a more informed perspective.)

posted by mrgreyisyelling to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (33 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a bleak and cynical travelogue: Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder.
posted by moonmilk at 1:45 PM on September 13, 2007

The closest thing I can think of is Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman.
posted by Prospero at 1:50 PM on September 13, 2007

Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Okay, Turkey's not in Europe, at least not yet, but it hits every one of your other balls out of the park.
posted by rdc at 1:56 PM on September 13, 2007

I thought Lie in the Dark was rather good.
posted by blueshammer at 1:56 PM on September 13, 2007

Maybe Boris Starling's Vodka?
posted by box at 1:58 PM on September 13, 2007

Charm School by Nelson Demille.
posted by goml at 2:14 PM on September 13, 2007

Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov may be a good fit: a freezing, cold setting with very cynical narration.

I would almost whole-heartledly recommend it, but it might be too brutal and miserable. So, if you've got a strong stomach, go for it.

(I'll refer you to Amazon.com for more info on this book: )
posted by gregb1007 at 2:16 PM on September 13, 2007

I might get laughed at for suggesting it, but how about The Historian?
posted by emyd at 2:17 PM on September 13, 2007

Check out the Arkady Renko books by Martin Cruz Smith... starting with Gorky Park (1981) and continuing thru this year's Stalin's Ghost.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:35 PM on September 13, 2007

If On A Winter's Night A Traveller...by Calvino
Not exactly a thriller, but thrilling and cold as ice.
posted by jennydiski at 2:38 PM on September 13, 2007

Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov

Whoa, that certainly wouldn't have occurred to me! Partly because of the "urban" (which Shalamov is pretty much the opposite of), but mainly because the post sounds like a request for a thrillerish novel, not a sickeningly brutal descent into the heart of man's inhumanity to man. But if the poster is interested in such a thing, Shalamov is as good as it gets—Solzhenitsyn said he wasn't trying to cover Kolyma in Gulag Archipelago because Shalamov had done it better than he could.

If you are interested in thrillerish novels, I recommend the Arkady Renko novels of Martin Cruz Smith. I don't remember how many scenes occur in winter, but they're definitely gritty, urban, and Russian.

Interesting question—I'll think about it and get back to you if other books come to mind.
posted by languagehat at 2:40 PM on September 13, 2007

Beaten to the punch by Artifice_Eternity. That's what I get for being such a wordy bastard.
posted by languagehat at 2:41 PM on September 13, 2007

Is it really a thriller you're after? You would definitely want to look at Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, and the two books that follow it. Very urban, very dark, definitely cynical. The author is Kazakh, but the books take place (mostly) in Moscow.

(Don't let the Amazon description fool you; Lukyanenko has taken a plot that by a US author would have inevitably been tripe and turned it into something vivid and compelling.)

If you get through these dark books and want something cynical but a little more fun, try The Russian Debutante's Handbook, from Gary Shteyngart.
posted by whatzit at 2:50 PM on September 13, 2007

If On A Winter's Night A Traveller...by Calvino
It's a great book, but hardly miserable.

I know you said contemporary & russian/eastern european, but Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr is worth a look if you want hardboiled.
posted by juv3nal at 3:00 PM on September 13, 2007

Solzhenitsyn's writings, in a way, changed my life. Bleak, cold, Russian, nonfiction.
posted by papafrita at 3:31 PM on September 13, 2007

Andrea Lee's Russian Journal is a memoir of a young American woman's year in Moscow in 1978. (Holy crap, it's back in print.) You've got your vodka etiquette, your Kremlin informers, your dire winters, your bread lines. It's not so bleak that you'll be reaching for the razor blades, but on the upside, it's true.
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:36 PM on September 13, 2007

Watch the movie "Stalker". I'm not sure if there's a book, though.
posted by tehloki at 4:38 PM on September 13, 2007

The Commissariat of Enlightenment and Century's Son both take place in a bit earlier time period (early 20th century), but are both excellent novels about Russia.
posted by rabbitsnake at 4:53 PM on September 13, 2007

Would a black comedy satisfy your craving? The very, very funny — and very, very dark — Ludmila's Broken English by DBC Pierre is set partly in Ublilsk, definitely a rump outpost of Mother Russia, and partly in a modern-day London that is scarcely more uplifting. Tangy and wild doings concerning separated conjoined twins, a foulmouthed mail-order bride, and her clan of Caucasian hillbillies.
posted by rob511 at 4:55 PM on September 13, 2007

Watch the movie "Stalker". I'm not sure if there's a book, though.

It's loosely based on Roadside Picnic.
posted by languagehat at 6:13 PM on September 13, 2007

Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith
posted by tristanshout at 8:17 PM on September 13, 2007

languagehat, unfortunately many rural places in Russia have acquired an urban feel by virtue of overcrowding and those gray monolithic buildings so ubiquituous in Soviet achitecture. To me, gulags seem very "urban" though they may actually be in very sparsely populated areas.
posted by gregb1007 at 8:27 PM on September 13, 2007

we the living by ayn rand is cold and miserable, not sure how modern though?
posted by thisisnotkatrina at 8:41 PM on September 13, 2007

William Gibson's Pattern Recognition has parts set in Russia. It meets your other wants, though.

The excellent Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky also comes highly recommended. Yes, it's Soviet SF from the 70's, but it doesn't feel dated. Or rather, it feels plausibly dated. Doesn't fit your criteria, though.
posted by Kattullus at 8:41 PM on September 13, 2007

posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:14 PM on September 13, 2007

Anderi Kurkov's Death and the Penguin is set in grim, chilly '90s Kiev, and, apart from being a (black) comedy, matches your requirements pretty well, having elements of crime, mystery, lawlessness, etc. There's also a sequel.
posted by misteraitch at 10:52 PM on September 13, 2007

Good suggestions above. Also Shteyngart's Absurdistan.
posted by londongeezer at 11:45 PM on September 13, 2007

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow - cold, fairly miserable, partly urban, European but not East-European and it has a great mystery/thriller plot.
posted by crocomancer at 3:26 AM on September 14, 2007

This TAL episode has Arthur Phillips reading "Wenceslas Square" for you, which you might like. If that's okay then there's Prague, as mentioned above (which I have not read).
posted by thijsk at 3:32 AM on September 14, 2007

Oh, and I really enjoyed Robert Harris' Archangel although it fails a bit on the "tourist trap" criterion. Otherwise I think it has everything you're after.
posted by crocomancer at 3:36 AM on September 14, 2007

Seconding Martin Cruz Smith novels...

My faves w/ Arkady Renko

Polar Star
Wolves Eat Dogs
posted by mistsandrain at 4:28 AM on September 14, 2007

Seconding Kurkov. The requirements you list could be a description of his novella A Matter of Life and Death.
posted by Mocata at 6:49 AM on September 14, 2007

Victor Pelevin has what you're looking for. Also try The Master and Margarita, if you haven't already read it. And Moscow Stations is short but excellent and dripping with vodka.
posted by xanthippe at 8:01 AM on September 14, 2007

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