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New York Times
May 17, 2003
A Russian Intellectual Turns to Crime (Fiction)

THE tortured Russian soul may have produced some of the world's literary giants and, more recently, serious writers who aspire to be. Grigory Chkhartishvili, the man credited with having created a new genre of Russian literature, insists that he is not one of them.

"Here in Russia, attitudes toward literature and writing have been peculiar for 200 years," said Mr. Chkhartishvili (pronounced CHAHAR-kesh-veely). "Here it is believed that a writer is a person who writes from the heart and with his blood. I write from my head and with ink.

"For me," he went on, "it was a calculated project from the beginning."

That project is a series of crime novels set in a Russia of a more gilded and, some critics say, largely imaginary era, the end of the 19th century. Since 1998, he has published 10 slight, richly stylized novels about the work of a charming and increasingly daring detective named Erast Petrovich Fandorin.

The series has transformed Russian publishing, tapping a new market for novels somewhere between pulp fiction, which sells well, and classical literature, which doesn't. The Fandorin novels have now sold more than nine million copies, by the publisher's account, and have spawned television spinoffs, a movie deal and translations, including, this month, into English.

It has also made Mr. Chkhartishvili not long ago a productive but obscure philologist, editor and translator one of the most popular and richest Russians writing today, albeit by another name: Boris Akunin.

"It was a sort of game, an interesting game, a funny game well, you know, not a completely innocent game, not Scrabble," he said. "It was a game of luck for me. Of course, I was thinking of success, that if I'm lucky I'm going to win not just a lot of money but something more important than that: a new lifestyle, the kind of life that would be more suitable than my previous one."

Mr. Chkhartishvili's trajectory, in its own way, follows that of Russia and Russian literature in the tumultuous transition since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet implosion brought new artistic freedoms, but left intellectuals like Mr. Chkhartishvili struggling to survive in a newly capitalistic world.

RUSSIANS, long restrained in their reading choices, turned in the 1990's to cheaply produced mass fiction with stories that mirrored the sordid chaos around them: gangsters and crime, sex and drugs. Mr. Chkhartishvili's innovation was to create a style of popular historical fiction for Russia's burgeoning middle class: best sellers that were literary if not, as he insists, literature.

"He is important, not only in creating the pseudohistorical, postmodern novel," said Ilya V. Kukulin, a critic with The New Literary Review, "but also in creating the model of the intellectual best seller in Russian."

Success has made Mr. Chkhartishvili, who is bearded and balding, impish and intensely private, a literary celebrity in Russia, though a reluctant one. He has also amassed wealth that to a member of Russia's intelligentsia was unimaginable only a few years ago.

Mr. Chkhartishvili, who turns 47 next Tuesday, was born in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, but moved with his family to Moscow as an infant. His upbringing was modest and Soviet. His father was an army officer, his mother a schoolteacher. He grew up, he said, in an atmosphere typical of Russian schools even now, severe and reserved.

"Soviet Victorian," he called it.

He went to Moscow State University, Russia's most prestigious, studying history and Japanese. For 15 years, he worked as an editor at Foreign Literature, which, for a time in the Soviet era, was the only authorized journal for novels, stories, essays and poems from abroad. He also wrote academic articles and translated Japanese novelists into Russian.

He began writing the Fandorin novels because his wife and mother were fans of the trashy crime novels then filling Moscow's bookstores and kiosks. But they were, he said, ashamed to be seen on the metro reading them.

It is a measure of the elitism of Russian intellectuals that he published them under a pseudonym, saying that his colleagues at the journal would not take him seriously if they found out. Besides, he wanted first to complete and publish a serious work under his own name, an encyclopedic rumination called "The Writer and Suicide."

"Here in Russia well, anyway, until recently, it was supposed to be a shameful thing for a serious philologist to write mass literature," he said.

He had completed the fifth book in the series, in 1999, before his identity as Boris Akunin became known. By then, the novels had generated a buzz that came to be known, after their protagonist, as Erastomania. He bought an elegant new apartment not far from Red Square and quit his job as editor.

The novels are not without pretensions: literary and historical allusions, stylistic devices and word plays, which some have compared to the works of Umberto Eco or Alexandre Dumas. His pen name comes from the last name of the 19th-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin that is, B. Akunin. "Akunin" is also the Japanese word for "evil doer," the relevance of which, he explains, only becomes clear in the fourth novel.

He is now writing the 11th of what will eventually be 13 Fandorin novels each in a different style of detective genre. A translation of the first in the series, "Azazel," is being published as "The Winter Queen" this month by Random House, which plans to publish three more.

Among Russian writers today, Mr. Chkhartishvili is invariably mentioned with two other novelists, Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin, whose postmodernist styles and themes have made them famous in Mr. Sorokin's case infamous after an obscenity case filed last year over his novel "Goluboye Salo," which depicts, among other things, a fantastical sexual encounter between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev.

Mr. Chkhartishvili's novels, however, eschew explicitly political themes. Mr. Chkhartishvili himself draws another distinction.

"What I write is pure entertainment," he said wryly. "Those two, though they behave, well, sometimes in a queer way, are real serious writers."

The novels are set in the last quarter of the 19th century, a period of relative stability under Czar Aleksandr III. The main character is a sort of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, combined except, as Mr. Chkhartishvili pointed out, "the Russian superman doesn't always win" and "is supposed to be sad."

PART of the appeal may be his gauzy evocation of an era of royalty and chivalry one that sidesteps the complicated debate over Soviet rule that still haunts Russia.

The novels' settings and characters are not, Mr. Chkhartishvili said, a form of escapism, but it is clear that he finds comfort in the distant past. The study in his new apartment is decorated in a 19th-century style and filled with antiques that have served as props in the novels.

He also spends idle moments in cemeteries. The gravestones in the Donskoi Cemetery in Moscow offered inspiration, as well as the names of most of his characters.

He has also begun two other detective series, another set in the 19th century featuring a crime-solving nun "the feminine series," he calls it and one in contemporary Russia with Erast Fandorin's grandson. He wrote the latter in a stripped-down Russian. "No games with style," he said. "It's all action from the beginning."

Those novels, two so far, have irritated many of his readers who "got used to this comfortable, cozy style." But they are selling even better.

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