2579) An Innocent Pawn Abroad : Book Review

© This content Mirrored From  http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com An Innocent Pawn Abroad; Fiction by Peter Pierce

Stray Dog Winter, By David Francis, Allen & Unwin,

David Francis' second novel is a disquietingly well-crafted thriller, writes Peter Pierce.

IN THE MOSCOW WINTER OF 1984, Russian Premier Yuri Andropov died. A year or so earlier, the Turkish Consul-General was murdered in Melbourne. .

The connections between events so disparate are vital for the plot of David Francis' second novel, Stray Dog Winter.

In turn they are shadowed by cataclysms of long ago that abide in vengeful memory, such as the killing of a million Armenians by the Turks, and by the terrible institutions of the Soviet state that have sustained its power: the KGB, the Lubyanka prison, the gulags. To the latter are dispatched newly identified enemies of order - homosexuals, or "blues". In another of Francis' historical markers, AIDS has just commenced its slaughter in the West.

Adventures often happen to those who least want them, such as Francis' Darcy Bright, a young Melbourne artist and homosexual who has agreed to the request of his half-sister Fin to meet him in Moscow - carrying for her a money bag that he is not to open. The device is so familiar that Francis' initial use of it is as daring as the destructive revelations that eventually it yields.

Francis understands how conventions can be both the bedrock of crime fiction and frameworks within which subversion and invention can thrive. Darcy's journey is bound to be ruinous for some, but with Fin "he shared a love and hate of dangerous people". An innocent abroad, he is inveigled into a scheme of which he has neither knowledge nor responsibility. As a consequence, his are the familiar punishments of the man on the run: pursued, beaten, imprisoned, powerless, in fearful flight.

We encounter him first on a train travelling from Prague to Moscow. Without knowing it, he is under surveillance. Any sense of freedom is already illusory. From the window of his compartment he is afforded glimpses of the lives of strangers.

Here, portrayed with Francis' characteristic asperity, are "A figure trudging alone in a snow-beaded field with a scythe. An unscarved woman behind a wooden fence shaded her face as if there was sunlight." Unconsciously, he has conjured images of death and darkness.

Soon his companions and tormentors, usually fulfilling both roles, will include not only his sister and her lover Jobik, but General Sarfin, who in interrogating Darcy "towered over (him) like a fuming building" and his son Aurelio, formerly of the Cuban Ballet and now reluctantly about his father's business.

The cold, dark world, menacing and ambiguous, through which Darcy is impelled flickers with images for his painter's and photographer's eyes. But to understand what they impend, who might be trusted, is beyond him. Instead he plunges on, wearing Aurelio's borrowed coat, which "felt heavy, like a shawl of dread".

There are two parallel actions in which he is enmeshed. One involves the succession to Soviet leadership of the brutal, cloddish Chernenko, and a sting operation against his son-in-law, mounted perhaps by "Gorbachev's people" who would, indeed, soon instal a new regime in the Kremlin. The other concerns those - operating within Russia - whom the Turkish authorities wish to exterminate as Armenian terrorists.

Darcy is haplessly put to use in furthering each of these intrigues and in observing their outcomes. Nowhere is Francis' touch surer than in handling the grand-scale events that swallow up plotters and the innocent alike.

However, he also plays strict attention to the cadences of his prose, as illustrated by sustained alliterative play with key words. For Fin, Darcy is both "her pigeon and her painter". His fate is persecution. His role in politics is to pimp for sinister blackmailers.

Stray Dog Winter is such a disquietingly well-crafted thriller that its domestic dimension might be overshadowed. Yet the portrait, in jagged flashbacks, of the collapsing fabric of the marriage of Darcy's parents, in what resemble a succession of scenes from a silent movie, is indicative of the author's range and authority.

Francis, lawyer and former Olympic equestrian, now based in Los Angeles, offers the demanding gift of his fiction to his own country, and beyond.

David Francis is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival, which is sponsored by The Age. www.mwf.com.au

Peter Pierce is chairman of the fiction judges for the Prime Minister's literary prizes, the winners of which will be announced on September 12.

The Age (Melbourne, Australia), August 30, 2008


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