By A.D. Miller
When I first moved to Taiwan in 2003, I read Alex Garland's novel, The Beach, almost fresh off the plane. Although The Beach focused primarily on the backpacker's mythological search for that one last undiscovered corner of the whorl in which to call their own, it did touch upon the notion of expats living overseas for extended periods. At the time, I expected my experiences in Taiwan to, if not parallel Garland's novel, provide for a working model. How completely wrong I was. Expat life is far more mundane than Garland's vision (obviously).
It is with this in mind that we meet Nick Platt, a Briton who has recently returned from nearly a decade living and working in Russia. Snowdrops proceeds as a tell-all from Platt to his unnamed fiancé as a way of airing out all his dirty laundry before settling down. A clearing of his conscience. And there is plenty here that needs clearing. It is a stark and honesty confession of a man who spent a decade living in a post-Soviet Russia replete with corruption, crime and hedonism and the way in which Russia altered the Platt's moral fiber.His story begins in his eighth year and concerns snowdrops.
It is telling that Muscovites have a slang term for the dead bodies that appear throughout the city following the spring thaw. These bodies, which have been buried under the deep freeze throughout the winter reveal themselves in the spring run-off like early blooming spring flowers of the same name. The metaphor is apt not only for the severity of Moscow winters but also for the moral ambiguity and crippling social problems that define post-communist, post-globalized Russia.
Platt is a lawyer and lives alone, his work is less than diligent and his social life is sleazier than he would like to believe. Like so many expatriates, time away from home has guided his moral compass in the direction of his adopted home. He is more likely to believe the shifty business practices of rich Cossack investors and cannot resist the allure of two beautiful Russian women (Masha and Katya) he meets on the Metro.
The women slowly creep into his life, first as a distraction from the monotony of life then as an obsession bordering on psychosis. While the depressing truth of the women's intentions becomes clear to the reader and their web of lies unfurls like, Platt continues to delude himself that everything is on the level and his relationship with Masha when, deep down, we know he knows exactly how it will all play out. I mean, it's right there in the title of the book isn't it? The tragedy of this novel is its complete lack of suspense as Platt continues to fall for the women's scam. One might assume that the allure of a leggy Russian woman in a short skirt and tall boots has a lot to do with it (and of course, it does) but A.D. Miller is insistent that the real culprit in this dupe was not the women so much as Moscow itself.
Like the work of Jeffery Eugenides, A.D. Miller has the ability to write his setting as a character of its own. In Snowdrops the Moscow of 2005 breathes with vodka-soaked life. Miller's Moscow is populated with Dagestani taxi drivers, Turkmeni road workers, Scandinavian shysters and sweaty Hungarian businessmen cursing in a dozen languages. The Moscow of Snowdrops reeks of cigar smoke and cheap perfume. What's not to love? Miller depicts the multi-cultural cash-grab, the winner-takes-all-and-damn-the-loser mentality that has come to personify modern Russia. The Moscow in Snowdrops pulses with perfect balance of kitsch, sleaze and bling. It is no wonder that Platt is ever bit as seduced by the city as he is by Masha and Katya.
It is often said that the longer you stay away from the country of your birth, the more difficult it becomes to go back. Platt's morally suspect friend Steve calls it long-term expat syndrome and I can vouch for the existence of such a disorder. As a long term resident of Taiwan (and one is in the planning stages of a return to Canada), I can relate to Platt's ordeal and his plight. It is easy to lose sight of oneself whilst living within another culture and I have met dozens of foreigners who have lived and worked in Taiwan for twenty, sometimes thirty years and it is difficult to imagine them living anywhere else. The ideas and morals you came with flake off like skin cells as you begin the slow transformation into something other. In Platt's case, he is not Russian, but he is no longer British either. He effectively belongs nowhere. So where do one's morals come from when one comes from nowhere?
Snowdrops was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and it is not terribly difficult to see why. I've often thought that a well-written novel that cuts to the heart of expat life would receive the right kind of attention. I figured the eventual novel would be about living and working in China, but Russia seems to work all the same. By focusing on a long-term expat, it cuts the culture shock factor in half and presents the cultural and moral differences in a more apologetic, less judgmental fashion. In this repeat, Snowdrops is everything that Alex Garland's The Beach was not. Gritty, sordid and pathetic but ultimately believable. Nick Platt could be anyone living and working overseas.
Hell, Nick Platt could be me.