Moscow’s Red Square and Bangkok’s Imperial Queen’s Park wouldn’t seem to have much in common but for the main characters in Anatoly Kurchatkin’s enjoyable and fascinating novel Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait from the original Russian, there is much that unites these disparate locales.
Early in the story, the Russian protagonist Radislav and his female companion at that moment, a child of the Soviet-era aristocracy, are walking past one of Bangkok’s royal parks when they chance upon a group of people practicing a “ballet of a kind he had never seen before.” Radislav admits to his friend Nellie, “I don’t feel I’m in a faraway foreign country. I feel this is where I belong.” The response is quick:
“Of course you do,” Nellie replied briskly. “We are an imperial people. Citizens of the former Soviet Union. For us Asian faces are part of our family. The whole world is our home. I’m speaking from experience. It doesn’t matter where you travel, everywhere feels like home.”
Kurchatkin’s entertaining use of dialogue both keeps the story moving along and imbues an additional psychological depth to the musings of the Russian and Thai characters. The reader might be reminded of other great Russian writers who centered philosophical insights not in the actions or events of the plot, but in the mouths of the characters themselves. The more vocal the characters are, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from their chatty interactions. Sometimes these discussions are on heavier topics, while other dialogue is more lighthearted.
For example, in one scene, Radislav and Nellie are being chaperoned by their Thai friend Tony, when Tony learns of a lovers’ spat between the two Russians:
“Ah, I expect Rad just doesn’t like the fact that I’m European,” Nellie responded.
Tony, taking his hands off the wheel, and turning to face her periodically, protested.
“No, Nellie, you are not European. I would say you are a Thai woman. You only look European, but inside you are Thai.”
“Well, in that case Rad doesn’t like the fact that I’m a Thai,” she persisted.
Tony’s unfailing smile showed signs of reproach.
“Rad, what you have done to Nellie?” he asked. “I think you have made her sad.”
Rad was left with no option but to respond.
“Nellie is a Russian woman, Tony, and a Russian woman is probably a mixture of European and Thai. It is a dangerous mixture.” He had wanted to say “explosive” but did not know the word in English.
The above quotations also highlight one of the leitmotifs of this story. The protagonist Radislav hints at what could have been a bromidic East-meets-West theme in his feelings of visiting Thailand for the first time and his adventures with companions. But his love-interest Nellie is clever enough to point out that these trite notions of the English-speaking world will not do. A closer approximation of Radislav’s encounter is really something like Slavic world-weariness. Russia is as Asiatic as it is European, so the tired theme of many a travelogue will have little purchase in the way Russians and Thais interact here.
In that sense, readers of English are quite lucky to have this translation of Kurchatkin’s novel. The story feels very fresh. Many of the descriptions of Brezhnev-era Russia and later the post-Soviet free-for-all are palpable as backdrops. That the setting then moves from the snow-carpeted streets of contemporary Russia to the sticky tropics of Thailand’s back alleyways and salty beaches is all the more fascinating. Kurchatkin also captures the tenor of Thailand and Thai people better than, say, the novel Platform by Michel Houellebecq did in that book’s musings on sex tourism. For English-speaking readers, author Kurchatkin provides a completely new lens through which to view a travel story to Southeast Asia.
The timing of this novel’s release in English is coming at a time when more and more Russian tourists are traveling the world over. In Thailand, sea resorts like Pattaya Beach in Chonburi and Patong Beach in Phuket are becoming infamous within the expatriate community as growing enclaves of Russian travelers. One is as likely now to find a dog-eared copy of some light fiction left behind at a Thai beach bungalow that is written with the Cyrillic alphabet as one used to find yellowing paperbacks in English, German, and Swedish.
Though Anatoly Kurchatkin’s Tsunami is personably Russian, it is no piece of light fiction and definitely not a book to be left behind half unread next to the pool. This novel comes highly recommended as an entertaining and fascinating read on the tangled connections between cosmopolitan Russian and contemporary Thailand.