The Investigator

The Investigator
Margaret Hamlin
The Investigator
Astrel (2012)
ISBN 978-5-271-44969-7
416 pages
Margaret Hamlin’s novel The Investigator, recently long-listed for the Russian Booker prize has thus far received little press attention in Russia. It is in many ways an inconvenient novel.

It is not possible to discuss the book in isolation from Hamlin’s two previous novels; Maya Klotsvog and The Extreme. The general themes of collaboration, betrayal and anti-semitism in a post–war Ukraine attempting to overcome the dark periods of the 30’s famine and the Nazi occupation remain the same. The novels share some key characters; Yankel Tsegelnik, commander of the Jewish Partisan resistance and his deputy, Gilia Melnik - appear or are mentioned here. More specifically The Investigator shares the same setting – the town of Oster in the Chernihiv region of Ukraine, its surrounding villages, and Chernihiv itself during the first postwar decade, when the war was won and according to the dominant state narrative everything would be fine.

The sense of joy in victory, however, is very fragile. Ukraine known as the “bread basket” of Europe had been under German occupation since 1941, and those who survived found themselves in a situation where, in the words of one minor character - rural teacher and collaborator Didenko, “the executioners and the victims live on the same street”. But co-exist they do, as they have little choice. Tensions are compounded by scarring memories of the famine of 1933, during which, for example, the parents of the very same investigator built a farm at his native village and "on orders from above scraped the last grains from under children’s pillows” to meet the Stalin government’s grain quota. Later during the war, these same "vultures" died, lauded as heroes.

Everyone is implicated. No-one is entirely innocent. It is simply a question of the degree of guilt. Most importantly the characters of Hamlin’s novel perceive themselves as guilty. The wife of a party worker, leaving with her son in the evacuation did not have enough room in the cart for her three nieces, and they went on to die a horrible death. A female partisan witnessed the girls in the burning house of the Ukrainians who sheltered them (these being shot as an example) - and did not throw a grenade, although she could have, thus condemning them to death in the fire.

Post-war literature of the Soviet period glossed over the complexities and consequences of this sense of guilt, painting the situation in black and white; here are the victims – here are the saviours, these are on our side, these are the enemy. Terrible grief and atrocities committed by foreigners overcome by collective effort was the overall narrative formula. Hamlin offers a less palatable and more nuanced picture of affairs, closer to the truth.

The key protagonist of The Investigator Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupko, a decorated war veteran and former intelligence officer cum investigator takes it on himself to explore some unclear circumstances surrounding the murder of a young and beautiful former Jewish partisan, Lilii Vorobeichik. 

A case that has been closed since her lover has confessed to the crime. During the course of his investigation he picks out these threads of guilt and responsibility, however, it turns out that they are too densely interwoven to become untangled.

This novel - in contrast to Hamlin’s previous two – is a pure psychological detective story in the spirit of Dostoevsky. It is essentially the collision of two intellects (both of whom slide into madness), Tsupko and Pauline Barto Laevskaya, once the wife of a low-level manager, and now a dressmaker. But in the game of cat and mouse a la Porfiry Petrovich from Crime and Punishment, their roles regarding one another shift and it becomes unclear who the investigator is and who the suspect.

The novel is populated with characters, full, vital and voiced who give the novel a polyphonic texture, and serve to wrest the focus away from the central characters, as each persona clamours for the reader’s attention in the matrix of damage and distrust, engendered by the assaults upon the locals of the state and the occupiers (the willing functionaries of whom were also those self-same locals). All of which is expertly mapped out by Hamlin.

Written in the first person in the language of a police report without chapter breaks, the narrative manages to have a sense of immediacy and at the same time be detached. It is narrated in the language of power, the language of the Soviet state and its agents, and hence the official version of events. But like the state version itself, the narrator shows himself to be ignorant to the culture and plight of the people he is “investigating”. On arrival in Oster, he is drawn into a Jewish wedding. He asks why both the bride and groom are so old and why they hadn’t married earlier in life, only to learn that they both had been previously married with children but had lost their families in the war. Similarly when he adopts his friend’s son Joseph, he is dismissive of the boy’s Jewish blood relatives claims to bring up the child reading the Torah. Providing a backdrop are the novel’s other languages – Ukrainian and Yiddish and as the narrator’s involvement in the Ukrainian Jewish community deepens, his language changes, reflecting his growing awareness.

Through the device of this unreliable narrator, who is culturally insensitive, cold-hearted but ultimately redeemed by a sense of loyalty, (and the question of loyalty is crucial to the novel, the question remaining allegiance to what – family, friends state, faith community?) Hamlin fixes a clinical unflinching gaze on one of the great unhealed wounds of 20th century history.

It is testament to Hamlin’s skill, that through all the fascinating confusion of her narrative, she has the ability to disarm the reader only in order to lead them to the edge of the cliff of bottomless human despair depicted in the last act. As one critic has commented, the novel ends like a "knife under the shoulder blade."

By Simon Knapper