by Yuri Kapralov
Those damn Bolsheviks, and the Satanists who might be working for them to bring the God-fearing Russian Orthodox to their knees, can drive a man to drink. It’s 1919 and Russia is awash in blood and misery. As the Reds fight the Whites for the soul of the country, millions die and those who aren’t dead yet drown their sorrows by drinking more vodka daily than you and I could get down in a week. Through the smoke and confusion of battles and hard-to-pronounce Russian surnames, we see a small group of people attempting to defend their homeland, essentially against itself. Deep in the center of the plot is notorious film star Nata Tai. She stole the hearts of the Russian masses, and now dances through a series of last minute escapes from the advancing Red Army, each more hair-raising and improbable than the last. She has her vices, certainly — cocaine, morphine, men, woman, and Satan, but deep down is a nice Russian girl who has fallen in with a bad crowd. Still, bad as things are, there seems to be a group of Satanists running loose looking for some sort of mysterious meteorite that does something or other. Nata had a falling out with the rest of the cabal, mostly over the assassination of her father. He had money; he had brains, and the Russian Rules require death for such crimes against humanity. Now she’s on a rampage.
While Nata sleeps with pretty much anything that moves, she does have one or two true loves, like Alex Lebedev. He not really that idealistic, but he does fight when he could run, and his sister Lucy has volunteered as a nurse on the armored train “Our Homeland.” Perhaps you’ve heard of the armored trains that played a big part of the battles of the revolution. Essentially, a train was covered with steel plate and machine guns, several large naval guns were mounted on cars, and these things ran around shooting at each other during battle. While impressive, they suffered a few technical limitations, like having to stay on the railroad tracks and not be blasted by the other trains. While they were often decisive in battle, assignment to one of these metal snakes was largely a death sentence — by the time our story opens, Our Homeland is on its fifth commander, the others having been killed in action.
Russian novels, especially those about wartime, tend to be as large as the territory they need to cover. At just under 300 pages, Kapralov’s works seems incommensurate with the long list of locations and battles on the flyleaf. Yet, by focusing on just a few people who survive (and most of the people in this novel are lucky to last two pages) the breadth of misery the revolution caused comes though clearly. Against the backdrop of pain we see the remnants of the privileged classes still taking their pleasure, as Nata orders wine and cocaine and lovers to specification in a fine restaurant. She has a few kinks, which are pretty clearly explained, adding a prurient pleasantness to the story. What is not clarified is just what role all these Satanists play in driving the revolution forward, although the implication is they make the Bolsheviks successful. More to the point, as we end the story, this missing meteorite reappears, and it does have a strange power — Nata forgives her arch rival just as she is about to torture and kill her. How — why — what all remain open questions, and the book just peters out with a vague “happily ever after” ending.
Despite this abrupt ending, Devil’s Midnight is immediately engaging, thoroughly enjoyable, and written in the best tradition of Russian authors struggling to explain their land and it’s people and how miserably screwed up things can get despite everyone’s best efforts to do the right thing for the right reason. In addition, somewhere, who knows where, is a vast spring of raw alcohol that pours forth from the earth to salve the pain of the Russian soul. How else could 15 million people stay continually drunk thought a revolution? It must be the will of God.
Akashic Books: http://www.akashicbooks.com/