“Orchestra” by Vladimir Gonik

Orchestra, Vladimir Gonik, Christopher Culver (trans) (Glagoslav, January 2021) Orchestra, Vladimir Gonik, Christopher Culver (trans) (Glagoslav, January 2021)

Classically Russian in length and possibly ambition, Vladimir Gonik’s Orchestra, recently translated into English by Christopher Culver, might prove the sleeper of the year. Three interlocking narratives and families play out over almost 40 years with the doomed Korean Air Lines flight 007 as the linchpin.

KAL007 is forever etched on my own memory since I was (for the first and only time) behind the Iron Curtain when the USSR shot the plane down over Sakhalin. Not that I knew exactly what had happened: there was no news. My American employer directed me to leave on the next available transport without saying why, believing (not unreasonably) that the phones were bugged.

The narrative tension is not much in what happens, but in how the pieces fall into place.

Orchestra opens with the unnamed narrator—a Soviet psychologist cum intelligence officer—getting caught in the lift at the Yale Club in New York City with American colonel Stephen Creighton. They have breakfast, swap stories. Creighton had flown bombers in WW2, Korea and Vietnam. He asks the narrator to accompany him to the airport, for he has a favor to ask regarding some loose ends from his past. He’s about to catch a plane to Seoul; the narrator—whose speciality is premonitions (the CIA studied this sort of thing; one presumes Soviet intelligence did as well)—has a bad feeling about this, and advises him to take a later flight.

Some forty years earlier, when WW2 had just a year to run, Creighton had taken part in Operation Frantic; in his case, his plane shuttled between a base in Italy and one in Poltava. There he met Olga Shilina, a young translator—and the inevitable happened, with tragic consequences for the young woman: her son Nikolai was born in jail. Creighton was shot down, but survived. Neither heard of or from, nor even apparently spoke about, the other again. Nikolai, unaware of how he came into this world, became a fighter pilot, and, bringing the story full circle, was assigned to a squadron in the Russia Far East on that fateful night.

Gonik telegraphs most of the plot points which are in any event largely driven by serendipity if not coincidence. The narrator opens with

 

The ways of chance amaze me. How can one comprehend its power, its vagaries, its greatness and caprice, its waywardness and willfulness, its sheer implausibility? Like a mischievous youngster, chance acknowledges no laws, cares little what people want, and only rarely bows before the inevitable course of events.

 

The narrative tension is not much in what happens, but in how the pieces fall into place; satisfaction derives from the journey more than the destination.

The scene cuts are almost cinematic.

Gonik has had a varied career. Born Kyiv in 1939, he studied medicine and was a military doctor. He was at other times a foundry worker, a hospital orderly and a seaman, experiences which also seemed to have informed this novel. He claims to have delved into the archives and met eyewitnesses; the novel is said to recount “secret operations that took place across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century.” Those with particular knowledge of latter stages of the Cold War might find that it does; those that don’t will probably find the accounts credible, and since it’s fiction, that perhaps matters more than truth.

Orchestra is constructed from a multitude (50, to be exact) relatively short chapters, switching between places, times and characters. While the book is a slow burn, with a number of diversions and subplots along the way, the brevity of each vignette never allows for boredom. The scene cuts are almost cinematic; at some, presumably later, point in his career, Gonik also graduated from the Moscow’s Institute of Cinematography, and has a number of film credits under his belt. One can’t help concluding that the screenwriter in Gonik must have thought that Orchestra might make a very good film.

The Americans in Orchestra seem to speak with a slight Russian accent. They are decent, but generally clueless about the complexities of the world (reminiscent, it struck me, of the Americans in the Russian-Ukrainian film Battle for Sevastopol from a few years ago). Gonik exhibits little but scorn for Russians who—excepting his protagonists—come across as mostly cynical, selfish and often doltish. Stalin and Andropov are given a couple of unflattering cameos.

 

Gonik is evidently widely-traveled; scenes from across the world seem drawn from observation. It is interesting to see Venice and San Francisco through Russo-Soviet eyes. Some of the minutiae, however, are curiously incorrect or perhaps misremembered. The Yale Club is indeed where he has it, but the restaurant with the “glass walls” where he becomes acquainted with Colonel Creighton is on the 22nd floor (says the Club website), not the 26th. Hong Kong—“or, as the local Chinese call it, Xianggang”—fares rather worse. If there is one thing “local Chinese” do not call Hong Kong, it is the putonghua Xianggang. “The main thoroughfare, Queen’s Road, ran along the coast,” he writes—which it hasn’t done since the 19th century. One supposes that few Russian readers would notice, nor perhaps many of the intended English-language audience either.

It takes a while—more than 500 pages—for the nuance in the title to become clear. But Gonik had telegraphed that too: at his very first introduction, Creighton pulls out a flute. Orchestra is like that: fatalistic yet hopeful; realistic yet with a dash of what most readers might find the paranormal; observant yet sentimental; passionate and patient.