Saturday, June 16, 2007
The Rasputin File
Our book today is “The Rasputin File,” and thereby hangs a tale.
Over our customary absinthe in the back room of the Black Lotus tea shop, my esteemed colleague the Swipper once again slapped the table top and said, “I tell you, I’ve read a book you haven’t!”
“We’re sure you have,” we replied, perhaps a trifle dismissively. “Some lurid work, full of big-chested women and protracted car chases.”
“No!” the Swipper shot back. “A real book. A history book, with a bibliography and everything.”
We chuckled. “Oh Swippsey, will you never learn? No such book escapes our attention here at Stevereads. And even if one did, it would hardly be known to a tyke such as yourself. Let’s just finish our absinthe and gossip about Beepy.”
“Beepy can go to Hell!” the Swipper blurted out, which did not dismay us (it being almost certainly true), until he followed it with the far more problematic “And so can you!” bolted from the table, and left the tea house. Only a sense of deep social embarrassment prompted us to finish his drink. And the rest of his food.
The next day he showed up at the palatial chrome-and-stone offices of Stevereads, book in hand. Plopping it down on our desk, he sat opposite and said, “There, you magnificent bastard. Ever read that?”
It was Radzinsky’s book, and somehow we hadn’t. Of course we and everyone else had read and very much enjoyed his “The Last Tsar,” a masterfully researched biography and a fittingly baroque headstone to the Romanovs. But “The Rasputin File”? Never heard of it.
We’d heard of its subject, naturally. Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, the ‘mad monk’ who established a hypnotic influence over the Tsarina Alexandra and the ladies of her court, noble and otherwise. Rasputin, whose epic death (stabbed, shot, beaten, poisoned, and finally drowned) had just enough wiff of unkillability about it to guarantee his place in the villain-roster of all future pop fiction (lately in Hellboy, for instance). We began reading.
And were quickly fascinated. Radzinsky writes in a distinctly Russian manner (which translator Judson Rosengrant perfectly captures, for good or ill) - confiding, spurty, liberal with exclamations. His historical research is first rate (obviously here including the cache of Rasputin-related documents that surfaced in the mid-90s), but he makes no secret of the fact that his primary goal is to tell an amazing story.
At this he certainly succeeds. Rasputin’s rise from humble peasant origins to the heights of imperial access is swiftly, thrillingly recounted, and along the way Radzinsky effortlessly weaves in all strands of Russian history and psychology (his digression regarding the history of ‘holy fools’ in Russian history, for instance, is so intensely intelligent that at less than a page it does more on the subject than some writers have done in whole chapters). His command of his primary materials (mainly a great Everest of letters) is absolute, but he’s also acute at reading between the lines. His book is full of characters who are distinctly strange but compellingly real.
None moreso than Rasputin himself, who emerges from these pages as a weird, crazed, paranoid, lecherous, opportunistic, manipulative creep. Radzinsky is very good at showing all the ways Tsar Nicholas disliked and mistrusted the mad monk, and by the end of the book we sympathize completely with His Highness. By the time the coterie of drunken plotters finally get around to killing Rasputin (a sequence of events Radzinsky wonderfully reconstructs), we’ve been impatient for that very deed for two hundred pages.
Quotes abound throughout the book attesting to the fact that it wasn’t a very nice person who was stabbed, shot, beaten, poisoned, and drowned that night, but one of our favorites is this one, from barrister’s wife Sheila Lunts:
“I called him, and he came to see me when there was nobody home except me and the maid. In the study he started pressing himself on me terribly. I remarked to him, ‘Leave off with that, don’t, let’s just be friends. I have never deceived my husband.’
He asked, ‘Is it true that you’ve never deceived him?’
‘On my word of honor,’ I replied.
‘Well, I believe it then!’ Rasputin said. ‘But if you ever want to deceive him, let me be the first!’ Then Rasputin asked if I had any wine. I told him I didn’t have, but that there was some 180-proof spirits. Rasputin drank a little glass of the spirits and took a bit of apple. Then ... he started dictating some rubbish to me in Church Slavonic. I filled up a whole page ...”
We finished the book at a gallop and were very much pleased with it. We laid it back down on the desk and confronted the avidly-watching eyes of the Swipper.
“Well?” he demanded.
“Well, Swippsey,” we conceded. “You were right. That was a real book we hadn’t read. Allow us to buy you a drink, by way of apology.”
So we returned to the Black Lotus and sipped absinthe and gossiped about Beepy into the wee small hours.