Black Knight In Red Square

Black Knight in Red SquareI finally got around to reading the second book in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s (1934 – 2009) Inspector Rostnikov series Black Knight In Red Square (1983). I had read book one in the series way back in 2013.  I gave that novel a four star rating and I am going to give this novel the same. I knew even before opening the book that it would be four stars, so I am likely very prejudiced by enjoyment and not being very objective.

In this particular novel, Kaminsky’s work as a professor of film studies comes through very strongly as the setting for the novel is an international film festival in Moscow.  This background really works for the novel and I think that Kaminsky does a great job with it. However, anything involving film theory is lost on me. You may as well be trying to explain deontology to a goat for all the connection you would get between me and film.  I hate TV, to be honest. I think one of the earliest films (in the theatre) I saw was The Song of the South (1946) and since then, I have not seen nearly what most people have. Surest way to make me lose interest is to start talking about the camera qua eye or the formalist valuations or the cut scenes. Oh, and I can be harsh with my criticism:  sitting staring, mouth agape, at some flat screen while fakery dances before your eyes via people who live to deceive must be the stupidest non-activity modern man has developed. What a flabbergasting waste of life.  Usually when I “watch” TV/films I am usually more intent on the people around me – how are they suddenly hypnotized and de-brained so easily? Passive zombies.

It absolutely, to my mind, proves the insanity of humanity when people watch movies/TV “together.” To my mind, film or TV is utterly a singular, personal, non-group non-activity. Its farking madness that people have a sort of “where two or more are gathered in any name, let the TV be on” mentality. The majority of TV/film I have seen has come from times when I was ill, times when the weather was super inclement, or I was alone for long stretches of time.

You can imagine that I have made many many friends and allies with these views. Let us just say that the people I know must have a great deal of tolerance and patience for me.

So, naturally, I was a bit disappointed in this setting because well…. anything, for me, might be more interesting.  But then I must give credit to Kaminsky because he wrote an engaging setting without making me feel like I was suffering through more “film theory” hypnotism. Indeed, he writes a certain character who is very extreme in his film making. He wrote another, a German named Bintz, that he describes in a lively and realistic manner.

“I make no movies with terrorists,” said Bintz, his hands still to his lips, his head shaking a vigorous no. “If they don’t like your movie, they put your head in a bag and shoot off your knees. Werewolves are safe.” – pg. 99, chapter 8

There are Russians who bond with film theory – maybe even invented it. And there are Russians like the character Emil Karpo – who are busy working. I am with Karpo. In fact, Karpo steals the show in this novel.  The main character, Rostnikov is still there and leading the proceedings, but Karpo is the star of the novel. I really liked everything about him in this one and he and I would be excellent friends, were either of us to have such things as “friends.”

Throughout the novel, there are some scenes that are written perfectly. For example, when Karpo interacts with the medical examiner.  That whole segment is beautifully done; the characters, the props, the dialogue is all perfect.  Similarly, the fight scene when the elevator opens and the “stubby washtub” Rostnikov is scowling at everyone is also written so skillfully. And, of course, the humor and surprise and emotion that Kaminsky plays with when he describes Rostnikov’s weightlifting competition (chapter 11)! Finally, any scene with Rostnikov and Comrade Timofeyeva is marvelous.

It is not lost on me that Kaminsky writes his book as if it were almost a movie. Or perhaps he writes the movie in his imagination as if it were transcribed into a novelization.  Kaminsky is very good at this creating these scenes and the elements in them. What would this movie be like as a film? Would it be better or worse?

Film and fiction can (and do) exaggerate.  Is this not based on the physical nature of the ancient theatre works? A stage is always the place for the melodrama and the hyperbole. It is no place for the dull, mundane, or normal. Thinking this way, does Kaminsky exaggerate or play on stereotypes of Soviet society and Russian personality? Yes and no. I think he treads a fine line and goes a little each way, but overall holds the centerline and keeps the whole thing very entertaining – which is, ultimately, what is wanted in a novel.

From time to time foreigners have attributed this quiet atmosphere to the fear of the people in a totalitarian state, but they have only to read accounts of Moscow streets before the current century to know that this is not true.  No, while Muscovites can be given to hearty laughter and heated argument and even madness, they are essentially a private people.  They drive their emotions inward where they build, rather than outward where they dissipate.  And Russians are fatalistic.  If a person is run over by a car, it is terrible, horrible, but no more than one can expect. – pg 171, chapter 12

Terrorists, or maybe just one terrorist, are threatening Moscow.  The MVD and the KGB are working “together” – in the strange and antagonistic way that they do. It is never the teamwork or the group as a whole that find success.  Instead, the focus is on the individual diligence.  Obviously a strange paradox for a communist situation. In any case, Kaminsky also relates the terrorist’s motives to film – or, at least, the stage.  Terrorism is to be seen and known, at least in Kaminsky’s 1980s.

I took a course in undergrad school called World Terrorism and it was taught by some very significant professors/experts in the field.  At that time, this was hardly a field and it was bunched into the political science curriculum.  I remember, though, the constant emphasis on “what does it show? who was the audience?”  Terrorism as film and vice versa? Heavens! no wonder I dislike film.

Overall, I really like the Russian characters, Karpo especially, but also Rostnikov and Timofeyeva. I feel like I can sympathize and understand them. I do not understand many characters in books, so this novel was a pleasant change for me. The pacing in the novel was spot-on and the writing is very well done.  The novel, which on the surface is just a little mystery thriller, is actually a bit more significant when read as a film theory.  The fact that I enjoyed this and picked up on a lot of this speaks to how skillfully this was all done! I definitely recommend this to readers and I do intend to read more in Kaminsky’s series. Also, there is a pet cat in the novel.

4 stars

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