Saturday, October 3, 2009

True Crime and Russian History

It should be obvious to everybody that no literature compares to Russian literature, and no history compares to Russian history. But if I had to pick another genre of literature to admire—if I do a second blog for example—I’ll be writing about True Crime. The magic of the True Crime genre is probably this: however paradoxically, it’s the one place where authors can really get away with an immersion in the commonplace experiences of ordinary people.

I don’t know why this is true, but few really good True Crime books spend too much time on the blood and violence. In fact, the suspense is predicated on immersion in the quotidian. You really have to know how ordinary a life was, how slowly time passed in that life, how uneventful things were, to appreciate terrible rupture. In Cold Blood is the model of course. And here Capote spends a great deal of time on very boring circumstances. The farm life, the small town, the farming family…. The murders point to something eternal about our lives. To borrow a phrase from Eliade, it’s the killing that links the sacred and the profane, or shows that the profane life of ordinary farmers really was sacred.

Reading Stalin’s biography-Court of the Red Czar in particular—I realized that history was true crime. In Court of the Red Czar, somebody dies on every page. The book opens with the suicide (perhaps forced, perhaps more than suicide, but certainly related to the protagonist’s evil) of Stalin’s wife.

But generally speaking, Russian historians always contrast terrible crime with the very ordinary lives of Russian citizens, the peasants being the banal embodiment of “everyman”. While Stalin plunges the country into violence, the peasants’ lives (indeed the workers’ lives) go on, filled with work, ordinary sorrows, etc. The czars are murdered in a basement, the country spends its blood fighting Germany and Austria, but a good percentage of Russian peasants hardly know what the words Germany or Austria mean, or what the word Russia means. They know the soil, the weather, hunger, poverty, and a local terrain. They don’t know True Crime.

And before concluding, I have to recommend the following True Crime books: Strange Piece of Paradise, My Dark Places, Executioner’s Song, In Cold Blood, etc.


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  2. With true crime, as with Russian history, I suppose there’s a suspense and sensationalism that allows for a social realism that would be otherwise too mundane. While both genres’ biographical treatments may be part of their allure, its the spectacular murders that make it worthwhile to read about socially marginal peoples’ lives.