After an abandoned attempt to read Death in Breslau I borrowed a second book from the local library to kick off this year’s Eastern Europe Challenge.
Pelagia & the White Bulldog is the first novel of a series set in late 19th century Russia and introduces Sister Pelagia: “a fidgety, curious woman, undignified in her movements and not cut out to be a nun.” She is tasked by the Bishop of Zavolzhie to investigate a situation which is vexing his Aunt who claims that someone has tried to poison the last remaining examples of the the white bulldogs with brown ears that her husband had especially bred before his death. That is really all I can tell you about the plot without delving into action that does not take place until the half-way point of the novel. Although I suppose it is not spoiling things too much to add that there is a second (eventually intertwined) storyline relating to the appointment of Vladimir Lvovich Bubenstov as a representative of the Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod to investigate religious improprieties in the town.
I have to admit to struggling with this book and in some ways I shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the reasons I stopped a formal study of literature during my University days was that I couldn’t face reading what I came to think of as ‘another bloody Russian’ that the syllabus seemed to be full of. I don’t know if it is the original writing or the way the language is translated into English but the one thing the Russian fiction of my acquaintance has in common is an unwillingness to use 10 words when 200 (or 2000) are available. I found the flowery, long-winded prose of Tolstoy and Dostoyesvky dread-inducing all those years ago but I thought perhaps a less ‘worthy’, more recent title might be different. Alas I did not find it so. Amidst the interminably lengthy descriptions of nothing much at all there is a story, of sorts, here but not one that kept me particularly engaged (and not one that couldn’t have been told in one-third the word count). I teased out some interesting observations about the politics of the day but as a mystery the book left a lot to be desired in that the culprit for the crimes that were eventually described was obvious almost from the outset and the way in which Pelagia deduced the answer bordered on the inane.
I didn’t find the characters particularly enjoyable either. I thought I would like Pelagia’s quirkiness but she soon turned into a kind of reject from a Carry On movie what with knocking over fruit bowls and spilling tea in men’s crotches and whatnot. Slapstick has never been my humour of choice. The rest of the characters were all pretty formulaic for the intimate melodrama the book turned into, though the way Bubenstov hid is evilness was the most entertaining thing about the book for me.
I know there are readers who don’t share my admiration for brevity and conciseness and more who simply enjoy the kind of writing that Akunin has produced here. I am probably the poorer for not being able to appreciate this particular style but it can’t be helped. For me the hints of wry humour and mildly interesting plot were lost in the flowery, tangent-riddled prose that made me want to poke my own eyes out with one of the knitting needles that Pelagia carried everywhere.
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I couldn’t find much in the way of online reviewing of this book but did come across a 2006 review in the UK paper The Independent that describes a similar reaction to mine. However in the interests of fairness you might want to check Amazon for some more positive reviews.
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My rating 2/5 (yes it probably is a little low, but it’s my opinion after all, as all the reviews here are, I’m not making any claims to objectivity)
Author website http://www.boris-akunin.com/
Translator Andrew Bromfield
Publisher Weidenfield & Nicolson [this translation 2006, original edition 2000]
Length 295 pages
Book Series #1 in the Sister Pelagia series
Source borrowed from the library