Guillermo Erades’ Moscow harks back to Chekhov

Back to Moscow, by Guillermo Erades. Photo: SuppliedBACK TO MOSCOW

Guillermo Erades

Scribner, $32.99

Review by Ross Southernwood

Following the advice of his then Russian girlfriend in Amsterdam, the protagonist of Back to Moscow applies for and receives a scholarship to a Moscow university. Martin’s intended PhD thesis will be about the heroines of some of the Russian classics, including Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Pushkin’s Tatyana and Chekhov’s three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina.

The title of this first novel by Spanish-born Guillermo Erades, who has lived in Moscow, is drawn from Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. “Olga: … I feel how every day my strength and my youth are leaving me … Only one dream grows … Irina: To go back to Moscow … to finish everything here … Olga: Yes! … to Moscow.”

Martin’s Moscow is a much different one from that longed for by Olga and Irina. It is the early 2000s, communism gone and capitalism arrived. A new political elite is rising.

Yet months after his arrival Martin is yet to begin his thesis, to the concern of his research supervisor, Lyudmila Aleksandrovna, a woman still harbouring sympathies for Soviet ways. To waylay her concerns, Martin announces he will write his observations and thoughts on today’s young Russian women, thus being able to compare them with those of the literature and giving his thesis a contemporary layer.

Martin has no trouble finding research subjects as the main thrust of his Moscow stay, accompanied by three other young expats from various countries, has been into its vibrant night life among the clubs and bars, and by day its cafes. Although never stated, Martin appears to hail from somewhere in western Europe.

Women come and go and drunken nights abound, as the quartet dive right in. For Martin, some do stay around – at least for a while: there is Lena, who speaks of the “mysterious Russian soul”, the teenage schoolgirl Polina and the blonde real estate agent Tatyana.

During the narrative, punctuated by real-life events, Martin relates these relationships and his thoughts on them; reflects on Russia’s great writers and considers their works; befriends a Moscow family; describes contemporary Moscow and recounts some of its past. The tone and feel of much of this recalls, for me, Henry Miller’s novels Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.

Back to Moscow is a lively and engaging work. Erades develops Martin from being careless with his relationships to finally appreciating a stable one. However, a shocking event will end this calm.

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