Village fêtes are dangerous places to buy books. The conviction that somewhere among the ancient almanacs and dog-eared Jilly Coopers lurks an underpriced treasure is so strong that I find it hard to come away empty-handed, and habitually end up with a selection of curios I will never read. But now and again I strike lucky, as I did with my 1966 first edition of Michael Frayn’s The Russian Interpreter.
Two things attracted me to it: I had read and loved another of Frayn’s early novels, Towards the End of the Morning, and my girlfriend (now wife) was a translator from Russian. The book didn’t leave me much the wiser about the language, but it did afford me a great deal of laughter – a rare achievement for a novel set in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
I had interviewed Frayn a year before and noticed that a poster for Wild Honey (his translation of an early play by Chekhov) had pride of place in his hallway. I knew that he had been taught Russian while doing national service, but only learned much later that he had been a frequent visitor to the USSR in the Fifties and Sixties – which explains why his portrait of a maddening city where everything is ‘unnecessarily complicated, never more than half explained’ is so convincing.
The book’s protagonist, Paul Manning, is a Cambridge graduate completing his studies in Administrative Management Sciences at Moscow University. Weighed down by the glumness of his surroundings, he finds life made suddenly more interesting by the arrival of a mysterious compatriot. Frayn’s opening paragraph brilliantly sets the tone for the novel, its words dancing an elegant, convoluted quadrille which foreshadows the spirals of the plot:
Manning’s old friend Proctor-Gould was in Moscow, and anxious to get in touch with him. Or so Manning was informed. He looked forward to the meeting. He had few friends in Moscow, none of them old
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