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the complete review - fiction
The Wizard of the Kremlin
Giuliano da Empoli
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- French title: Le mage du Kremlin
- Translated by Willard Wood
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B : entertainingly done, for better and worse, overview of Putin in power
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The New Criterion
|Wall St. Journal
|Gary Saul Morson
From the Reviews:
- "(A)n acute and timely dissection of Russian power, told through the eyes of a shadowy political adviser to Putin. (...) Willard Wood’s extremely well-rendered translation captures the pithiness of a novel that pinpoints Putin’s rise to power during the Yeltsin years and culminates with the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war that began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014." - Tobias Grey, Financial Times
- "Der Magier im Kreml ist anregend geschrieben und behandelt politische Aktualität. (...) Viele der im Roman erzählten Ereignisse haben historische Pendants (...) Detektivisch spürt Da Empoli den Körperzeichen der Macht nach, dem ironischen Blitzen im Auge, der verräterischen Körperhaltung, dem kaum erkennbaren Wink. Auch die Strategieanalysen -- etwa jene zur Schwächung des Westens oder zur ideologischen Zementierung des Regimes -- sind aufschlussreich. (...) Literarisch und ideologisch riskant sind zwei Punkte: Der Autor folgt seinem Spindoktor mit Sympathie -- am Ende weiß man kaum noch, ob er dessen Ansichten teilt oder kritisiert. (...) Zudem sind die Klischeevorstellungen der Regierenden über ihre Untertanen insofern gefährlich, als sie keinerlei Realitätstest unterzogen werden." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "I am a dyed-in-the-wool Russophile, so this novel is right in my sweet spot. (...) I loved Baranov’s company, his pitch-black cynicism, his self-awareness and his sharp political analysis. Apart from anything, the novel serves as a bracing refresher course on the key events of recent Russian history. Through Baranov and his interactions with Putin and others, The Wizard of the Kremlin takes us imaginatively into the seat of Russian power and articulates a set of ideas about Russia that seem like a plausible but worrying summary of what its rulers might actually believe. (...) It’s a testament to Da Empoli’s novel that the book succeeds on its own terms as a work of fiction, but the fact that it’s rooted in reality adds a chill that lingers long after you have put it down." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian
- "If anything, Empoli does not take enough advantage of the freedom that fiction offers him. As an outsider, he may have realized that he lacked the insight necessary to do any more. Instead, he mostly contents himself with tinkering at history’s edge. (...) The Wizard of the Kremlin works well as an introduction to some of Russia’s recent history or, at least, the West’s current understanding of Russia’s recent history. Although almost all the book is made up of one long monologue, thanks to the subject matter and some sharp writing, this is much more interesting than it sounds." - Andrew Stuttaford, The New Criterion
- "The great strength of Le Mage du Kremlin, however, is that no matter how seductive and intriguing you might find the voice of Vadim Baranov, the author never lets you forget that you are in the presence of evil. Its literary achievement elevates the novel above a reductive political analysis of the workings of the Kremlin, bringing it at times closer to Dostoevsky than an academic article or an op-ed." - Andrew Hussey, New Statesman
- "The fictional set-up is creaky but effective. (...) Da Empoli’s book has been criticised for being too sympathetic to Putin, but where it turns sentimental is with the Wizard himself. (...) The Wizard of the Kremlin is a fast, easy read, smartly translated by Willard Wood, which efficiently dramatises great sweeps of Russia’s recent political history. Its success in France can be attributed both to the country’s special relationship with Russia and to its flattering embrace of a familiar literary perspective on Russia and its tsars." - David Sexton, New Statesman
- "A highbrow entertainment cast squarely in the Umberto Eco mould, The Wizard of the Kremlin is a political thriller propelled more by ideas than action. (...) Da Empoli’s tale is, of course, a meta version of Surkov’s own tangled web of fiction and reality. And since any wholesome script must present a trajectory of positive change, the closing scene discloses a highly sentimental motive (not likely to be shared by his real-life model) for the fixer’s voluntary withdrawal. (...) The Wizard of the Kremlin is a propulsive novel that sometimes gives the impression of containing greater subtlety and wisdom than it actually possesses" - Victoria Nelson, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Most of The Wizard of the Kremlin is narrated by Vadim Baranov, who recounts his life-story to the original narrator.
Apparently based on the real-life figure of Vladislav Surkov, Baranov is presented as a longtime close aide to Vladimir Putin -- called (here by Garry Kasparov): "the Wizard of the Kremlin, Putin's Rasputin" -- who played a significant role in the success of the 'tsar', as: "In his fifteen years of service to him, he'd helped build up the man's power considerably".
(Surkov was an aide to Putin from 1999 to 2020.)
From the first, Baranov makes clear that:
The only thing that matters in Russia is privilege, proximity to power.
Everything else is secondary.
Coming of age just as the Soviet Union collapsed, Baranov and his friends found: "a new world was opening up before us, right when we were finally strong enough to conquer it".
He enrolls as a drama student, meets the love of his life -- Ksenia, the daughter of Soviet hippies -, and sometimes hangs out with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, already well on his way to oligarchdom, who works at winning over Ksenia from him (as Khodorkovsky eventually does).
Baranov takes a job as a TV producer for a newly privatized TV network, ORT -- run by Boris Berezovsky, who also uses his position to influence the political situation, first supporting Boris Yeltsin and helping him get reëlected before deciding that: "The head of the FSB would make a good candidate".
That would be Vladimir Putin -- and the rest is history, as Putin went along with Berezovsky's plan but made clear that, were he to assume power, he would not be beholden to anyone.
As Baranov quickly realizes: "Berezovsky had made a big mistake" -- but, while Berezovsky finds himself ignored by the soon-powerful Putin, Baranov is able to hitch his wagon to Putin's and, for quite a few years, is along for a very successful ride.
Baranov covers some of the major events from Putin's long rule, from the Kursk-submarine tragedy to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi (about which Baranov says: "It was clear that he considered hosting the games to be the highest point of his reign"), in each case shedding some light on the peculiar but determined (and, in its own way, effective) way Putin had of doing things.
The notorious confrontation with Angela Merkel, when Putin brought out his dog to intimidate her, is among the incidents that gets closer attention.
Familiar figures also have cameo roles, from Eduard Limonov (see also Emmanuel Carrère's book on him) to the notorious Yevgeny Prigozhin, seen here touring the infamous St.Petersburg Internet Research Agency he set up, with Baranov explaining that the point isn't to spread any specific Russian message (not least, of course, because there's precious little to offer), because:
We don't need to convert anyone, Yevgeny.
We just need to find out what they believe and convince them of it even more, is that starting to make sense ?
Pumping out the news, broadcasting true arguments or false, none of that has any importance.
But making them mad, all of them.
Madder and madder.
The quickly sidelined Berezovsky did recognize -- too late -- why Putin is wrong for the head job: as he explains to Baranov:
"Do you know what the problem is, Vadya ?"
Baranov's own cynicism grows, so that he ultimately sees a world where: "power is the only solution [...] power returning to its primal origins: the pure exercise of force".
His heart isn't quite in it, however, as he doesn't strive to maintain his position and influence; he lets himself fade from Putin's innermost circle, not willing to put the necessary effort in any longer.
Ultimately, he is, in every way, resigned -- down to telling his interlocutor, the narrator who receded deep into the background for most of the novel, only to reäppear in the closing pages:
-- Of course I do, Boris, the problem is that Putin is a spy.
-- No, listen, Vadya, he's not a spy.
Your boss worked in counterespionage.
That's not the same at all !
Do you know the difference ?
Spies look for accurate information, that's their job.
But people in counterspionage, their job is to be paranoid.
To see plots and traitors everywhere, and to invent them if necessary.
That's their training.
Paranoia is a professional duty.
To the tsar's way of thinking, nothing ever happens spontaneously.
There's always manipulation involved.
With protests or people's indignation, nothing is ever what it seems.
There always has to be someone behind the scenes pulling the strings, a puppet master who's pursuing his own strategy.
Human history ends with us.
With you, with me, maybe with our children.
Afterwards, there will still be something, but it won't be humanity.
Baranov's account of his life, and especially those years working for Putin, is breezy, with the figure of the tsar always left somewhat inscrutable -- and Baranov not really seeming to be too interested in probing much beyond the surface, nor in contemplating the moral implications of Putin's actions, or his own.
The other characters, specifically the many real-life ones -- down to Larry King and his 2000 interview with Putin --, are used quite well to comment on and shed light on parts of Putin's personality and (often seemingly ruthless) ways of doing things -- though Putin remains something of a mystery man.
A few personal touches, such as Baranov's love for Ksenia and the way that relationship goes, presumably is meant to show a human side (so also then with a cameo by his young daughter), but feels a bit at odds with the rest of the narrative.
The Putin of The Wizard of the Kremlin remains a distant figure, less evil than bland and empty, devoid of interest in people -- calculating, but little more.
Da Empoli also does let himself get carried away some with grand pronouncements on the Russian and human condition, and there's the familiar excuse/explanation of how and why Russia is supposedly so different (which Putin, in his own warped way, also subscribes to, and bases much of his mis-leading on).
Putin and how, despite all his failures, he has continued to maintain his hold over Russia makes for fascinating subject-matter, and da Empoli does quite well presenting the factual material, but ultimately The Wizard of the Kremlin still feels like it's barely scratching the surface.
It's an entertaining novel, an engaging light read -- but also too light, even uncomfortably so, considering the seriousness of what is being presented here.
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 August 2023
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The Wizard of the Kremlin:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Italian-Swiss author Giuliano da Empoli was born in 1973.
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© 2023-2024 the complete review
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