Ella, a teacher in the small Finnish town of Rabbit Back, discovers that something strange is happening to the books in the local library. The apparently normal copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment has been re-written so its protagonist is shot, not imprisoned; Aslan has killed Jadis in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and a number of other works have been similarly altered. When challenged the librarian is evasive, yet it is with Ella’s admission to the secretive Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of writers trained from childhood by the famous author Laura White, that the plot really thickens. What follows is less a process of Ella uncovering the truth than it is the unveiling of a succession of absences: who was the missing tenth member of the society, and what happened to him? And what has become of Laura White?
The star turn of this novel is the town of Rabbit Back itself and its bizarre yet uncomfortably believable inhabitants: lost in the snow somewhere between Angela Carter and Italo Calvino, it’s a place where the borders between reality and fiction seem disconcertingly porous. Superbly written (and admirably translated by Lola M. Rogers) and taking risks that in less skilful hands would not pay off, this exploration of the act of storytelling is as chilling as it is beguiling.
A man is haunted by a memory from his youth: fighting for the White Army during the Russian revolution, he shoots a man in self defence and leaves him to die in the forest. Years later as an émigré in Paris, he finds in a volume of short stories a description of the incident, though told from the perspective of the man whom he thinks he has killed. How can this story exist? And who is it who has written it?
So begins this slim but wonderfully realised novel. Gazdanov’s narrator is a freelance hack whose Paris is experienced principally in darkness, populated by exiles and criminals; as he searches for the face from his memory, the city itself seems to shift under his gaze. Though the novel’s plot borrows heavily from detective fiction, the philosophical ruminations of its unnamed protagonist and the themes of identity and loss that it explores brings it closer to European modernist writing. Most of all, however, it is the novel’s images that are its most luminous aspect: a riderless white horse in the summer heat of the Russian steppes; a fighter suffering in an ill-matched and brutal boxing match; a couple sleeping in a broken-down car on the edge of Paris in thunderstorm. Puzzling, enigmatic and beautifully translated by Bryan Karetnyk, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is an elegant and finely poised thriller.