[12 June 2008]
As the beleaguered people of Burma could testify (in secret at least), a state that lives in denial of the condition of its people is a very dangerous thing, indeed. For the authoritarian ruler, any failure in the system is intolerable. To admit that the system cannot explain everything; that some things are simply beyond its control, leaves an unacceptable chink in its armor. Where failures occur—and they always occur—it’s much simpler to deny that they even exist. Or, to put it another way, better to live in knee-deep in it than be seen working a shovel.
State denial forms the backdrop to Child 44, a brilliant and gripping thriller from debut novelist Tom Rob Smith. Set in Soviet Russia in 1953, the story follows the pursuit of a prolific child killer whose crimes span the country along its network of railway lines. These highly ritualised slayings are carried out with near-impunity, for officially speaking, crimes such as rape, theft and murder no longer exist. Such transgressions are the symptoms of an indulgent and excessive capitalist system, and should not occur in a workers’ paradise, where inequality has been eradicated. Any such crimes that do occur are dismissed as accidents or the work of anti-Soviet elements.
Kicking against this system is Leo Demidov, Nazi killing hero of the Great Patriotic War turned MGB agent. Resourceful, able and strong, Demidov is at first glance a classic thriller hero. A once proud and loyal servant of the State, he is as happy to dismiss the claims of murder as anyone else. That is, until the machinations of the State turn on him and he begins to see it for the empty lie that it is. Stripped of his position and exiled deep into the Soviet Union, Demidov finds a new sense of purpose in tracking down the child killer, even though to call a murder by its name marks him as anathema.
Pursuing Leo is ambitious MSB agent, Vasili Nikitin. Under the regime’s philosophy, Nikitin is the good guy, stopping at nothing to catch a rogue officer. An effective villain, his sinister smile is nevertheless an unfortunate lapse into cliché, which stands out in a book which so carefully avoids them elsewhere.
Smith has previously worked as a scriptwriter, and elements of this art have crept through to his new life as a novelist. Dialog is rendered in italicized lines, which lends clarity to the page, while each scene is carefully laid out like those of a movie. It will come as no surprise to the reader that the screen rights have already been sold. Nevertheless, no matter how cinematically written a book may be, there remain some things that will always work better on the page than on the screen, and it is a mark of Smith’s precocious talent that he uses the form of the novel so well here.
Ultimately, the real villain is not any single person, but the State itself. The pernicious influence of the Stalinist system permeates every page, as it does the lives of the characters. The need to be seen as a good Soviet brings with it unimaginable pressures which affect every facet of life. The strain it places on the Demidovs’ marriage is a recurring theme throughout the story, and provides Child 44 with some of its most affecting moments.
It is in the depiction of humanity that Child 44 really succeeds. Running through the story is Demidov’s determination to do the right thing, for the slain children, for his wife and for himself. For all its power, the State cannot diminish that innate spark, nor can it remove the simple and honest ties that bind us all together. As various characters pull together against huge odds and the worst imaginable circumstances, Smith’s central themes of hope and redemption shine through. The State may perpetuate, but so does its people, as flawed and as genuine as ever. And ultimately, there can be no denying that.