In my last review I returned to reading Italian crime fiction, with Augusto De Angelis’ The Hotel of the Three Roses (1936), and this review sees me returning to Russian crime fiction with Oleg Pavlov’s novel, The Matiushin Case (1997), which was translated by Andrew Bromfield. However I think my use of the phrase ‘crime fiction’ can only be applied in its loosest sense to this novel, despite the fact that it’s blurb aligns it with Dostoevsky’s famous novel Crime and Punishment (1886). Although I would suggest that unlike in Dostoevsky’s work, the protagonist of The Matiushin Case first undergoes what could be described as lifelong punishment, due to his poor upbringing and brutal experiences in the Russian army, before committing his crime. This is a novel which ends where the detective novel begins, with the crime, and instead charts the factors which cause a man to become a criminal.
Therefore the novel begins with Matiushin’s childhood, which shows him being a disappointment to his alcoholic and violent father in the light of his older brother, who as a young man quickly shows himself mirroring his father. Even when Matiushin is in his youth it is evident that he has dysfunctional relationships with his family members, feeling nothing when his brother dies in military combat. This does not stop him though from joining up in the army himself, getting the medical attendants to overlook his deafness in one ear.
The majority of the novel after this point focuses on the brutality Matiushin experiences and how this ultimately leads to him to the point of criminality. I won’t go into details as to the things Matiushin experienced as they are of the predictable kind in the sense that readers may have already read novels or watched on TV, dramas or films which cover this. However a number of issues are brought out through Matiushin’s experiences. For example alcohol is shown to be an essential coping and numbing mechanism not just for Matiushin but other soldiers, who may appear jocund, having a good time being drunk on their way to the training camp, but the narrator actually tells us they are ‘going insane in their fear.’
Power is another issue which unsurprisingly crops up in the story and is typified as being corrupt, self-serving, controlling, manipulative and violent. Moreover, there is a sense that those who have been or are in the army eventually internalise this, so it does not seem wrong to them. For example an ex-army person who was also an Uzbek (and therefore treated even more harshly in the army) says to Matiushin, ‘If someone’s beaten me, I respect them. I respect strong people.’ This dialogue perpetuates a damaging or perhaps a warped idea of what strength can be, showing it only in its violent form. Matiushin also adopts the idea of violence equalling power to an extent, using it to control a drug addicted army cook.
But Matiushin also goes under other changes during his time in the army, such becoming more dehumanised. This is reflected in the novel when he is temporarily demoted to being a cleaner and it is said that he felt ‘more like a mouse or a cockroach than a man,’ and his kinship with animals is further emphasised when he works with the Alsatians on the army base and he begins to discern their separate personalities. A phrase which stood out for me was when Matiushin is described as ‘like a two legged gun made of something solid, heavy and immobile,’ which ties into the fact that is shown to be becoming psychologically quite neutral, until nearer the end where sleep deprivation amongst other stresses cause him to act out, when ‘he felt as if he was going insane, he couldn’t decide what to do, didn’t know who to punish and what for.’
Knowing the intended structure of the novel, e.g. the crime is the end point, I expected this novel to reach a crescendo, with Matiushin’s behaviour finally burning all his bridges and ultimately becoming inhuman. However, I was disappointed in that the story dies with a whimper and feels as flat as Matiushin’s emotions, leaving me wondering whether this can be classed as a true crime narrative. Although I did consider whether the point of the ending was that the true crime in the story was what actually happened to Matiushin himself.
From a narrative point of view a few things stood out for me. Firstly the novel is not divided into chapters but into four sections, which means the narrative runs continuously in each quadrant. Personally I didn’t enjoy this setup as it felt quite wearing with no obvious breaking points. Moreover, I think the first section could have been much clearer in its opening as initially it is hard to tell whether it is Matiushin who is being talked about or his father. Furthermore, some characters appear to have two names which meant I got quite confused as to who was being talked about. Thankfully after the first section this issue resolves itself, although at the start of the second section the narrative voice seemed confused with itself, predominantly speaking about Matiushin in the third person but also including inclusive personal pronouns such as ‘we,’ which puzzled me a little, as such an intrusion by the narrative voice felt out of place.
Overall I thought the book examined the human psychological state under extreme stress well, in particular showing that crimes can be built up to with bad life experiences. But in a way it felt too familiar and lacked surprise (except for the ending) as you could predict the kind of things which were going to happen. I struggled to identify with the main character, especially due to the confused way he was introduced into the story, but then I wonder if, as a reader, I was supposed to identify with him. On the whole this book didn’t really grab me and the ending wasn’t particularly dramatic, to the extent that Matiushin’s psychologically critical act seems to only matter to Matiushin himself and having little effect on the reader.