Ah, the unholy trinity of war, sex, and The Devil. Correlating Bolshevism and Satanism, Yuri Kapralov takes his readers back to the uncertain days of the Russian Revolution. In Kapralov’s Devil’s Midnight, now out on paperback, we follow four figures as the Reds sweep across Russia in the winter of 1919-1920. Yuri Skatchko is a White colonel with an instinct for combat and a nagging suspicion that he knows not for whom he’s really fighting. Alexey Lebedov is a young Volunteer whose only stake in the war is survival. His bold, brave sister, Lucy, serves as a nurse in the White Army. And last we have Nata Tai, the greatest and most beautiful actress in Russian silent film, a witch, a whore, a morphine addict, and a former Satanist. Needless to say, the other three characters quietly back off stage near the middle of the book as Nata, easily the most interesting of the quartet, holds her own.
Within the context of war and the desperation it triggers, two love triangles quickly form among the four leads, and it is these that shape the book. Yuri falls for both Lucy and Nata, while Nata, whose vigorous sexual life is crowded with lovers of all stripes, finds her heart torn between Yuri and Alexey. Meanwhile, Nata has sworn vengeance to her father, who was killed by a cabal of Satanists with whom Nata once associated. Now she must seek them out one by one to avenge her father’s death. And, of course, throughout the novel, always and by everyone, lots of vodka is drunk.
The narrative is dense, full of names and army strategies, different cities and trains that shift the setting from town to town. By mixing in elements of Satanic witchcraft, Kapralov brings an atmosphere of mystery and darkness to the text and its historical backdrop. The romances that develop only add to this darkness, as Nata’s relationships with Yuri and Alexey are tainted by drugs and witchcraft. Kapralov pulls no punches; the often violent sex scenes range from implicit to explicit, and scenes of torture and gruesomeness pervade the text. Bolsheviks slash innocent civilians with bayonets; a devil’s ice storm renders thousands of soldiers dead; eyeballs and tongues are torn out; you get the picture.
The scope of the novel is much larger than its 346 pages would seem to suggest. For the considerable number of scenes, settings, and characters that the novel involves, one would expect a 700-page opus. Kapralov must have intended to write a work of epic proportion, and there are glimpses of epic-ness, particularly during scenes told from Yuri’s perspective. Unfortunately, the book as a whole falls short of its aim, possibly due to overeager editing. Many scenes seem cut short, stripped to their bare essentials, and the sometimes inconsistent narrative pacing can be hard to follow.
Devil’s Midnight is not the easiest reading. Kapralov employs language that is often overdense, often choppy and bland. Equally as often it is propulsive and wonderfully figurative. Consider this passage, describing the armored train “Our Homeland”:
Lucy could not tear her eyes away from the huge dark green snake with its strange brown markings and the cannons and machine-gun barrels protruding here and there from its hard skin … The snake stopped, stood still, silent, then its doors opened with a screeching sound and a group of officers and Volunteers spilled out on the platform, as if the giant snake had just given birth.
“Several Red machine guns opened fire from two of the buildings, the windows, and the rooftop. Their bullets were like peas bouncing off the armor plates.”
Linguistically deft moments like these appear from time to time, demonstrating Kapralov’s literary skill. Overall, however, the novel feels one draft away from being truly complete.
Still, it is a delight to read a contemporary novel that adds something new to the tradition of the many great Russian epics that have come before it. Certainly the Russian Revolution has been tackled before, but Kapralov’s stab brings a level of dark, supernatural mysticism that throws an already-gloomy history even deeper into shadow. Everyone is at war here, with themselves, with each other, and Kapralov doesn’t make sense of this so much as illuminate its senselessness. While so many historical novels adhere to documented events with little wiggle room for artistic innovation, this novel is set apart by its ability to seriously synthesize the history with a fantastical interpretation of it. Maybe the agents of Satan did, Kapralov suggests, play a part in this ruthlessly bloody civil war. What other explanation is there?