Guillermo Erades’ debut novel has a lot of sides to it – it’s about a lot of things. It’s about the changed position of Russia after the fall of communism in the country; it’s about classic Russian literature; it’s about subverting literary conventions… Most of all though, it’s about growing up and entering adulthood. At heart it’s a classic coming-of-age story.
Martin, the protagonist, isn’t a likeable character – but he isn’t supposed to be. An English exchange student living in Moscow, he spends all of his nights out at bars and clubs with his expat friends trying to pull. Throughout the novel we see him have plenty of relationships, treating only a fraction of the women he sleeps with well. He’s selfish and self-centred – even if he seems to be oblivious to it almost all of the time.
And it’s this obliviousness, really, that fuels the novel. Erades examines a lot of cultural issues surrounding Russia during the time that Back to Moscow is set – primarily the position of women in the country – but filters them through the mostly oblivious gaze of Martin. As an Englishman, everything comes easy to him in Russia; he can get a high paying, low effort job with easy, he can spend his days doing nothing and he can blag away the university work he isn’t doing with little consequence. But it’s the Russian women he meets that have tough lives – something he doesn’t seem to understand.
His ex-long-term girlfriend, Lena, for example, is forced to get involved with prostitution in order to get to where she wants in life. As she explains to him, there are very few ways for a Russian woman in Moscow to earn enough money to have savings. An employer that is likely to pay an English man incredibly well is also likely to pay a Russian woman incredibly poorly. Martin can’t understand why Lena does what she does, because despite the fact that they live in the same city, their experiences of it are so completely different.
There’s a lot to Back to Moscow – too much to cover. It is also really heavily interested in Russian novels and short stories – Chekov in particular – and their structures and morals. It also gives an incredible amount of insight into a culture I must admit I didn’t have much interest in before. This is one of those novels that resists being analysed in a straightforward way; there are too many sides to it – it’s the sort of book that keeps you thinking. Oh, and it’s also pushed me to get into Russian literature. I’ve had a Chekov short story collection sat around for ages, and now I’m finally going to give it a read.
I highly recommend this book, not just for its interesting characters, but for all the interesting things it talks about. In addition to being a great novel, it’s also a great gateway into Russian culture and literature.