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A winter's tale
30.09.10 | Alice O'Keeffe
As the Economist's former Moscow correspondent from 2004 to 2007, A D (Andrew) Miller got to know the city well. He was writing mostly about politics, although, as he points out dryly, "business and politics and crime are kind of ineluctably linked in Moscow".
The idea for Miller's début novel Snowdrops (Atlantic, January) came from an article about the significance of the snow in Moscow which has played such a crucial part in Russian history and the Russian psyche. In the course of writing the piece he discovered the concept of "snowdrops", in Moscow slang: "a beautiful name for a horrible thing—these bodies which get buried in snow during the winter and emerge in the thaw and are typically homeless people or drunks. I thought it was an incredibly powerful image, not only for the waste and cruelty of life in Russia sometimes, but other novelistic things like the return of the past and the way things you try to repress can catch up with you."
The novel opens with the discovery of one such "snowdrop", which heralds a confession from the book's narrator Nick, explaining to his fiancée the events of one winter in Moscow. As Miller says, "It's not quite a thriller but I hope it works as some kind of moral thriller. You find out on page one that something bad is going to happen although you don't know exactly what, so the question is how does it happen, how does this ordinary-seeming 30-something Englishman come to be complicit in very bad deeds. It's a story about moral degradation."
The novel is set in mid-noughties Moscow and Nick is an English lawyer working for a firm acting for a consortium of Western banks on a $500m loan to a Russian state energy company which is constructing a floating oil terminal. One day on the Metro, Nick meets two Russian girls who say they are sisters. As he drifts into a relationship with one of them, he finds himself drawn, almost imperceptibly, into a world where the boundaries between right and wrong are shifting. The plot centres around two very different deceptions.
"In a way I think it's a credit crunch tale. When I was in Moscow there was this reciprocal greed between foreigners and newly rich Russians where all kinds of dodgy deals were happening, no questions asked even by the people who were supposed to be asking the questions."
Miller hopes that the book won't be perceived as anti-Russian—"obviously in some ways it's not a flattering depiction of modern Russia, although I think the things it depicts are true: they are real and can happen"—the novel also skilfully illuminates the way that "given the right incentives and environment, anyone can lose their moral bearings and that's what happens to Nick".
"The quality of fun is different in Russia . . . partly because life seems so much more contingent and vulnerable. Who knows what will happen next week? Therefore there's an intensity to enjoyment in Russia which is very alluring and which I've tried to depict in the book, as well as the more negative aspects."
Miller's first book was the family memoir The Earl of Petticoat Lane, about his grandparents' journey from the East End to high society, sparked by his grandma's death in 2000 and a bequeathed cache of papers and letters. Although non-fiction, as a narrative with real people he thinks it was "quite good training really, in terms of pacing and description, for writing a novel." Although published by different houses—The Earl of Petticoat Lane with Heinemann, and Snowdrops with Atlantic—Miller has had the same editor for both books, Ravi Mirchandani. Atlantic pre-empted Snowdrops for reportedly its most significant advance since The White Tiger, and rights have already sold in 22 countries.
Miller was recently made Britain editor at the Economist, and has already started working on his second novel. He credits the day job with making him a better writer, as well as giving him things to write about. Snowdrops was an attempt, he says, to capture "the opacity of living in Russia. You can feel, particularly as a journalist, that you're living in a world of infinite regress. You think something's happened, it's very hard to find out exactly what happened, and ultimately you're not even sure whether anything happened in the first place. That's what Nick experiences as well. He knows he's been complicit in a crime, it's questionable how guilty he really feels about it, but he's also not completely sure about all the details of the crime even after it's been committed."