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Wilkie Collins’s Legacies: ‘The Moonstone’ in Boris Akunin’s ‘Murder on the Leviathan’ and ‘Children’s Book’

by Marcia Morris

The plot of Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone relies heavily on the device of the legacy, and legacies – great, small, and merely hypothetical – crop up with astonishing frequency over the course of the novel.1 Rachel Verinder, for example, receives an Indian diamond as a bequest from her uncle; she subsequently comes into her mother’s sizeable fortune; and she stands, at some nebulous point in the future, to inherit Drusilla Clack’s copy of The Life, Letters, and Labours of Miss Jane Ann Stamper. Similarly, Franklin Blake inherits a great deal of money after his father’s death; Rosanna Spearman bequeaths him a japanned box containing his own nightgown; and Ezra Jennings leaves him diary pages documenting the penultimate stages in the quest for the stolen Moonstone. Additionally, Godfrey Ablewhite receives a legacy of five thousand pounds, while Drusilla Clack complains of having been bilked of her promised legacy from Lady Verinder. These various legacies serve, in the first instance, as spurs to the development of The Moonstone’s storyline. They also, however, direct the reader towards the novel’s thematics and signal its deeper conflicts.2

It is highly appropriate, given Collins’s predilection in The Moonstone for creating legacies, that any number of later writers should have come to regard his novel itself as a narrative legacy, or intertext. In this article I will explore some of the legacies of Collins’s legacies. Specifically, I will examine how and to what end the contemporary Russian writer, Boris Akunin, re-imagines The Moonstone’s various legacies in his historical novels Murder on the Leviathan [Leviafan, 1998] and A Children’s Book [Detskaia kniga, 2005].3 In these novels (as well as in many others), Akunin ingeniously recreates the criminal underworld of pre-Soviet Russia, using it as a springboard for his complex conversation with a broad array of nineteenth-century literary masterpieces.4 The relatively small number of scholars who have paid serious and sustained critical attention to Akunin have all commented on this intertextuality. Unfortunately, the majority of them have contented themselves with a fairly cursory cataloging of Akunin’s literary interlocutors and failed to move beyond generalities. Those who have probed Akunin’s intertextuality more carefully have attended primarily to his Russian sources.5 By focusing on Collins’s device of the legacy, I propose to broaden critical investigation into Akunin’s acts of literary appropriation and to base my argument on evidence derived specifically from one of his major western intertexts.

The question of legacies is, of course, of paramount importance to the historical novel, a genre that mediates between bygone fictional events and contemporary reality. Post-Soviet novels in particular often look backwards to the past in order to discover a meaning in the present and a viable direction forwards for the future.6 A central problem for these novels is the localization of a particular historical period that would offer the most powerful explanatory mechanism for subsequent events. Akunin, although he occasionally situates his novels in either earlier or later periods, seems to prefer the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He sets the entirety of his Murder on the Leviathan in 1878 and Chapter II of A Children’s Book (“Yesterday”) in 1914.

Murder on the Leviathan7 is the earlier of the two novels and, as such, offers Akunin’s first response to inheritances in general and to the inheritance of gemstones in particular. We might ask, then, why Akunin sets Leviathan specifically in 1878, at a moment of ostensible calm before the revolutionary storm that would ultimately engulf Russia. In other words, what, from Akunin’s perspective, is the nature of the legacy that this period provides? Akunin’s critics have taken two mutually exclusive approaches to answering this question. Sofya Khagi argues that Akunin’s novels set in the late-nineteenth-century reflect “nostalgia mode,” a postmodernist phenomenon that glorifies “pre-revolutionary Russia and … the country’s traditional moral and religious values.”8 Her argument is fine-grained and nuanced, allowing for “an exciting exploration of the relations between eulogy and satire, form and content, art and commodification.” Unfortunately, however, Khagi draws less sophisticated conclusions than her complex analysis warrants. Elena V. Baraban, by contrast, contends that Akunin, far from glorifying Russia’s past, exposes “the social problems of the nineteenth century, in order to support his own criticism of capitalist society” (401). My reading of Murder on the Leviathan supports Baraban’s claim that Akunin condemns the dark underside of the nineteenth century. And although Murder on the Leviathan does not sustain her view concerning a specific critique of capitalism, this critique will come into play subsequently, when Akunin pens A Children’s Book,9 his second take on the question of legacies.

How, then, does the Akunin of Murder on the Leviathan read the late nineteenth century? What does he find in Wilkie Collins that might invite fruitful dialogue with Russian history? What, for his purposes, areThe Moonstone’s legacies? The first and most important of The Moonstone’s many bequests is material in nature and takes the form of a large, peripatetic, yellow diamond which once adorned a statue of the Hindu moon god. This Moonstone is said to have been singled out for the particular attentions of Vishnu, the great god of the Hindu pantheon whose task it is to preserve creation. The stone’s three Brahmin guardians watch in a dream as “[t]he deity breathe[s] the breath of his divinity on the Diamond in the forehead of the god” (26). The Moonstone, thus, becomes “devoted to the service of a god” (25). Unlike “inferior,” semi-precious gems (moonstones in the plural, with a lowercase “m”), it endures, unaffected by “lunar influences” (ibid). Vishnu “command[s] that the Moonstone should be watched … to the end of the generations of men” (26). The Moonstone’s life, in other words, is coterminous with the cycle of creation that Vishnu preserves.

Any given cycle of creation, of course, is scarred at one time or another by violence. Within the larger cycle, empires rise and fall, nations march against other nations, and ideological conflicts give rise to war. In similar fashion, the fate of the Moonstone is filled with vicissitudes. The stone, like India itself, passes into the hands of various men, some of whom wish it well, but others of whom wish it ill. It travels to England, where both John Herncastle and Godfrey Ablewhite contemplate cutting it into smaller stones. Throughout these alterations in place and status, the stone nevertheless retains its integrity. It becomes an emblem of permanence, a symbol of survival.

The Moonstone’s English protagonists, needless to say, do not credit the stone’s long lineage or its sacred signification. Instead, each of them endows it with his or her own profane semiotic value. The sole exception is John Herncastle, who steals the Moonstone during the sack of Seringapatam. He is said, by virtue of his “love of the marvellous,” (27) to believe the legends surrounding the stone. Rachel Verinder, by contrast, employs the Moonstone to embellish her already notable physical beauty. Franklin Blake, who purloins the gem under the influence of laudanum, sees it not as an emblem of the preservation of creation but, rather, as a precious object that merits preservation in its own right. Neither of the two recognizes the special sanctifying grace ascribed to the stone by its Indian devotees.

The Moonstone, of course, vanishes from Rachel’s Indian cabinet, and there are, at first, no clues as to its whereabouts. When Franklin Blake returns to England in order to take up his inheritance from his father, he comes into an additional bequest, the japanned box left by Rosanna Spearman. This box contains The Moonstone’s second ambiguous legacy, Blake’s nightgown, which is stained with paint. The nightgown is proof positive that Blake brushed up against Rachel’s newly painted door on the night that the Moonstone disappeared and, thus, that he is a thief. In one fell swoop, the gown effectively transforms Blake, the diamond’s seeker, into its taker.

The nightgown holds a further significance. In a letter to Blake, Rosanna explains that on the day after the diamond’s disappearance she discovered the paint on his gown and, realizing that Blake was liable to be caught out in a crime, donned the telltale piece of clothing herself, hiding it under her dress: “I undressed and put the nightgown on me. You had worn it – and I had another little moment of pleasure in wearing it after you” (338). Rosanna, who has already admitted to having fallen deeply in love with Blake and who initially suspects that he entered Rachel’s room in quest of carnal delights, covets the nightgown for its aura of physical intimacy. She invests it, in other words, with sexual desire. It is, of course, ultimately Rachel, not Rosanna, who is destined to achieve the gratification promised by the nightgown, but this does not in any way negate the nightgown’s sexual force for Rosanna.

The fates of the Moonstone and the nightgown are crosscut by legacies of a less sensational, more straightforwardly material sort: money and real property. These are the legacies that, when conferred (particularly in the cases of Franklin Blake and Godfrey Ablewhite), allow the characters to pursue their desires, unhampered by material want. When, by contrast, these same legacies are withheld (Drusilla Clack), their non-recipients are constrained to trim their sails. The Moonstone’s material legacies neither ennoble nor discredit their recipients but, rather, serve the fairly instrumental purpose of forwarding its plot.

Boris Akunin’s Murder on the Leviathan may at first glance – at least by comparison with The Moonstone– appear rather deficient in legacies. Indeed, there is only one truly provocative and dazzling bequest: Bagdassar, the rajah of Brahmapur, has left his son a collection of gemstones – five hundred and twelve perfect diamonds, emeralds and rubies, each weighing a breathtaking eighty carats. The rajah has hidden the stones from British invaders, and they can be retrieved only with the help of a hand-painted shawl, which forms an additional part of the legacy and serves as a kind of treasure map. Before novel’s end, the quest for the missing shawl will result in the deaths of thirteen people.

Murder on the Leviathan offers its readers only one further and – at that – seemingly mundane legacy: the novel’s aging spinster, Clarissa Stamp, has recently inherited a small fortune, which has freed her from material cares. On the strength of this inheritance, she abandons England in favor of Paris, where she immediately surrenders to sexual desire, reified in the person of a handsome but larcenous young man. Much chastened by her ingenuous misstep, Stamp embarks together with the rest of the novel’s characters on a journey to India aboard the luxury liner Leviathan.

The legacies that I have just identified in Murder on the Leviathan – Indian gems, painted clothing, and money – figure prominently inThe Moonstone, as they do, in various combinations, in several other literary works. I consider The Moonstone a prime intertext forMurder on the Leviathan not on the strength of these three legacies alone, but also by virtue of other considerations. First, in Murder on the Leviathan Akunin reanimates a number of the more memorable character types in Collins’s original gallery. With Anthony Sweetchild, he offers us a near copy of Collins’s intrepid adventurer and Indian scholar, Mr. Murthwaite. In Gintaro Aono, Murder on the Leviathan’s physician, diarist and representative of the racially Other, we recognize Ezra Jennings. Clarissa Stamp provides a postlapsarian variation on Drusilla Clack and, indeed, bears a truncated version of Clack’s alter ego’s surname (Stamper). Commissioner Gauche caricatures the great Sergeant Cuff, while the slightly deranged Sir Reginald Milford-Stokes, who grieves ceaselessly over the loss of the woman he loves, is an exaggerated and hollowed-out descendant of Franklin Blake. Other characters, to be sure, are original to Akunin – most saliently, his clever detective, Erast Fandorin, and his two criminal imposters, Charles Renier (who masquerades as a ship’s officer but is, in fact, Rajah Bagdassar’s only legitimate son) and Renate Kleber (who is actually the notorious international adventuress, Marie Sanfon). Even these characters, however, distantly echo Collins: Charles Renier, for example, is the product of an Indian rajah’s mésalliance with a French dancer, and he tames his hair with brilliantine and dyes his mustaches in order to disguise himself as a bona fide, one-hundred-percent European. Collins’s Godfrey Ablewhite, the son of a mismatched gentry mother and middle-class banker, does a very similar thing only less successfully and in reverse; he darkens his skin and dons a wig in order to look like an Indian (Hennelly, 41; Nayder, 493). Akunin’s Renate Kleber is visibly (and clamorously) heavy with child; so too is Collins’s Rachel by the time The Moonstone ends.

Murder on the Leviathan’s debt to The Moonstone extends beyond characterization to embrace narration. Collins prefaces his work with a documentary-style treatment of the history of the Moonstone and the storming of Seringapatam. He then famously unfolds the novel proper through a series of chapters named for and narrated by various of his characters. Akunin is more eclectic, mixing chapters narrated in the first person by Milford-Stokes and Gintaro Aono with chapters that, although narrated in the third person, are nevertheless titled after one or another of the novel’s main characters. Like Collins, he prefaces all of this with documentary material – newspaper articles about the sensational murders of nine Parisians.

Just as Murder on the Leviathan coincides with The Moonstone in important aspects of characterization and narration, so too does it emulate it with regards to setting. The story takes place in a privileged space (a luxury ocean liner) among a group of well-heeled members of the ropertied classes. Unusually for a Russian novel, none of the action occurs in Russia, and only one of its characters is a Russian. More important, Murder on the Leviathan unfolds during the Victorian age (Ranchin, 235). Akunin purposely casts his gaze backwards in time to a moment when well-to-do Russians moved with perfect ease among their French and English traveling companions, speaking French like Frenchmen and English like Englishmen. Akunin’s ambiance – at least in its surface manifestations – has a great deal more in common with Victorian England than with contemporary Russia.

Given, then, that Akunin provides all the necessary amenities for a dialogue between himself and Collins, we must ask ourselves how that dialogue proceeds. We first hear of the fantastic gem that will launch the theme of legacies in The Moonstone’s prologue:

 

At that date [the eleventh century], the Mohammedan conqueror, Mahmoud of Ghizni, crossed India; seized on the holy city of Somnauth; and stripped of its treasures the famous temple, which had stood for centuries – the shrine of Hindoo pilgrimage, and the wonder of the eastern world. Of all the deities worshipped in the temple, the moon-god alone escaped the rapacity of the conquering Mohammedans. Preserved by three Brahmins, the inviolate deity, bearing the Yellow Diamond in its forehead, was removed by night… (25-26).

 

This relation diverges in significant ways from the historical record. As Edward Gibbons famously describes the sack of the temple, “Mahmud the Gaznevide” slays 50,000 Hindus who are defending an unnamed deity. Then:

[t]he trembling Brahmins are said to have offered ten millions sterling for [the deity’s] ransom; and it was urged by the wisest counsellors that the destruction of a stone image would not change the hearts of the Gentoos, and that such a sum might be dedicated to the relief of the true believers. “Your reasons,” replied the sultan, “are specious and strong; but never in the eyes of posterity shall Mahmud appear as a merchant of idols.” He repeated his blows, and a treasure of pearls and rubies, concealed in the belly of the statue, explained in some degree the devout prodigality of the Brahmins (chapter LVII).

 

By contrast with Collins’s quasi-fictive version of the sack, in Gibbons only one deity is mentioned; that deity is associated with scores of stones; and none of these stones “escapes.”

In the sole passage of Murder on the Leviathan in which Akunin overtly (albeit it rather loosely) quotes from The Moonstone, he references both Collins and Gibbons:

In the year (I don’t remember which) of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to the Moslem chronology was (and of course I don’t remember that), the mighty Gaznevi learned that in Sumnat on the peninsula of Guzurat (I think it was) there was a holy shrine that housed an immense idol worshiped by hundreds of thousands of people … His soldiers defiled the holy site and ransacked it from top to bottom, but they could not find the treasure. Then Gaznevi himself approached the idol, swung his great mace, and smote its copper head … The idol split in half and the diamonds and precious stones that had been concealed within it spilled out on to the floor in a gleaming torrent (116-117).

 

Akunin’s story features a large number of stones, a detail shared with Gibbons, and a connection between these stones and the deity’s head, a detail taken from Collins.

Strangely, Akunin’s story of pillage and destruction seems to have nothing to do with the actual gem horde that drives the action of Murder on the Leviathan, since none of Bagdassar’s gems are traced (or, presumably, traceable) to Sumnat. Moreover, the story is unmotivated by previous events in the novel and disconnected from what follows; it jangles peculiarly against its surrounding narrative. It is my view that Akunin breaks his narrative and inserts this little story precisely in order to catch his readers’ attention. We pay more heed to the story than we otherwise might because we immediately notice how unmotivated it is. Having given us pause for thought, Akunin then expects that the story will invoke literary antecedents and, accordingly, raise common themes. His invocation of Gibbons points us in the direction of history in general and the thematics of decline and fall in particular. Collins points us towards the problem of gemstones and, specifically, of one gemstone that is privileged above all others.

This one stone, the Moonstone, appears in Collins’s novel as an acting subject – by virtue of its removal to England, the stone has been forced to become a power unto itself, a force dedicated to its own preservation. Although its Indian guardians are tasked with caring for it, the stone itself evades their stratagems and twice finds its way into bank vaults, where it remains safely, unmolested. It ultimately survives to play its predestined, public role: at novel’s end the guardians return the Moonstone to its proper place, adorning the forehead of the moon god. From this vantage point, it “looks forth once more, over the walls of the sacred city” in stark contrast to its earlier, restricted locus on “the bosom of a woman’s dress” (482). Thus, when the dust settles on The Moonstone, the eponymous stone has found its way back to its proper place, and its Hindu devotees have resumed their age-old worship of the moon god. An ancient mode of being and believing has been validated and reinstated.

And it is not only India that benefits from the restitution of proper order. With the return of the Moonstone to India, an air of clarity and propriety has descended on England as well. Godfrey Ablewhite, openly revealed to be the hypocrite he secretly was, has been vanquished and removed; Ezra Jennings, the man who never quite fit into English society, has quitted it for the grave; and Drusilla Clack has abandoned her motherland in favor of genteel indigence in France. England is shown to be what it has always believed itself to be – a decent, civilized society in which everything has a place and there is a place for everything.10 This sanitized vision of England is, of course, held primarily by the defenders of the established order like Mr. Bruff and Sergeant Cuff, not by Collins himself or, for that matter, by his readers. But even from our perspective, the Moonstone’s return to India has cleansed England, entailing as it does a welcome moral scouring of the west’s self-righteousness.11)

Our Russian author, whose nom de plume (B. Akunin) approximates that of the great nineteenth-century anarchist (Mikhail Bakunin [Kasper; Khagi]), sees life differently. In Murder on the Leviathan, Collins’s enigmatic gem multiplies fantastically in both size and number, while at the same time dwindling sadly in power. The rajah’s treasure trove consists of beautiful things, of stones pure and simple. Unheeded by any god, they remain mere objects of desire.12 Moreover, none of the characters ever lays eyes on them; the stones feed the characters’ greed and speculation but have no physical being of their own. Certainly, none of the novel’s characters, whether eastern or western, attaches a sacred value to them; even Bagdassar, their royal collector – and he is cast very specifically as a collector, not a worshiper – is said to have coveted them strictly for their material beauty.

Thus shorn of any power for subjective agency, the stones play no active role in the moral economy ofMurder on the Leviathan. Terrible things happen: men, women and children die; the novel’s isolated and lonely characters become ever more estranged one from the other; and we readers, who view events with the benefit of over a century’s worth of hindsight, know that yet worse things hover on the horizon. In short order the age of Victoria will pass. As Akunin’s use of Gibbons foretells, imperial dynasties will fall. Russia will be severed from Europe. And all the time, the rajah’s stones will be lying lifeless and inert in their Indian hideaway. Stability will have been shattered, not preserved.

Closely paralleled to Akunin’s transmutation of the Moonstone into inert matter is his treatment of Collins’s other ambiguous legacy, Franklin Blake’s paint-smeared nightgown. In The Moonstone, the nightgown is a clue, meant, first and foremost, to reveal what has happened to the yellow diamond. It also, like the diamond itself, acquires subjective agency. Rosanna Spearman breathes her desires into the nightgown. After taking it to her bedroom, she turns out to have lost her breath: “As soon as I got my breath again….” (330). And the gown whispers to her in return that it will procure Franklin Blake’s gratitude for her, that it may even help her gain a place in his affections. Rosanna responds to it as she would to a flesh-and-blood man. The nightgown transforms – if only in her own mind – a plain-faced, hunch-backed, erstwhile pickpocket into a plausible beloved.

In Murder on the Leviathan, the painted nightgown becomes a painted shawl. Significantly, this particular item of dress is never intended to be worn; from the moment that the rajah first crafts it, its significance is unequivocal and straightforward. It is no more and no less than a material means to a material end – the finding of the hidden stones. Admittedly, the shawl briefly appears – like Collins’s nightgown – to take on the lineaments of sexual desire. An African stowaway on board the Leviathan catches sight of the shawl in Renier’s cabin. Intrigued by its bright colors, he takes it and ties it around his neck. He covets it for its beauty; his desire is strictly aesthetic. After Renate Kleber discovers him wearing the shawl, Renier kills him. Realizing that their fellow passengers are about to arrive on the scene, Kleber then throws herself down on the deck and pulls the dead African over herself, creating the appearance of a rape.13 In so doing, she effaces the stowaway’s aesthetic desire for the colorful shawl, replacing it with a false semblance of illicit, sexual desire.

The saga of the shawl is not over. Renier and Kleber kill yet again in order to keep Sweetchild from discovering their identities as well as their quest for the stones. They then lay plans to abandon theLeviathan and let it run onto the rocks during a storm. In their own minds, their desire for the rajah’s stones justifies the deaths of everyone else aboard the ship. Needless to say, Erast Fandorin discovers the dastardly plot in good time, and the ship is saved. Fandorin also recovers the cobweb-fine shawl and, determined to put an end to his fellow passengers’ gem-lust, promptly consigns it to an ocean breeze. It disappears forever, bearing away with it the only hope of locating the rajah’s treasure trove. Far from imbibing the sacred, animating breath of a god – or even that of a lovesick woman like Rosanna Spearman – the shawl has become an object that passively succumbs to an indifferent breath of air.

Thus, Collins’s and Akunin’s paint-covered pieces of clothing each point us in a different direction. The stained nightgown, which Franklin Blake wears as he penetrates Rachel’s sitting room, offers us a titillating foretaste of more delightful things to come. Blake will enjoy the fruits of the marriage bed by token of the fact that, in Collins’s world, intimacy is achievable and needs only to be earned though the application of true love and devoted service (Reed, 94). Akunin’s shawl, by contrast, forebodes a much less comforting reality. In Murder on the Leviathan, intimacy is a pretense. It is a euphemism for raw desire which, in its turn, is capable of annihilating the delight we take in aesthetic beauty. It is, at best, evanescent, wafting away on the gentlest of winds and, at worst, deadly, demanding the sacrifice of innocent and guilty alike. The shawl reduces our finer feelings to sheer physicality. Like the rajah’s stones, it represents a failing, falling creation.

The remaining legacy in Murder on the Leviathan, Clarissa Stamp’s newly inherited fortune, is equally doomed. This inheritance entices Stamp with the false hope that she can recoup the sterile years she has spent as a paid companion. Accordingly, she forsakes England for France, the emblematic land of romance (but also the destination of Collins’s abstinent and impecunious Clack), and throws herself into the arms of the first good-looking man who comes her way. The gentleman in question absconds, however, leaving Stamp emotionally bruised and fearful of future entanglements. She nevertheless risks falling in love one final time, singling out for her attentions the sensitive and reserved Erast Fandorin, a man of barely half her age. Unfortunately, what neither she nor any of the other passengers can know is that Fandorin himself has recently suffered a tragedy. Like Milford-Stokes he has lost his wife, and he has no wish to involve himself with anyone else. Clarissa Stamp, whose youth was squandered in poverty, now finds that wealth has come too late. It cannot buy her the intimacy she craves.

In fact, material wealth turns out to be the reversed, smiling face of emotional poverty. Murder on the Leviathan confers a monetary legacy on Clarissa Stamp but simultaneously condemns her to misery. Her real inheritance is the loneliness and lovelessness betokened by The Life, Letters, and Labours of Miss Jane Ann Stamper, and it creeps into the plot via Collins’s Moonstone. This is the inheritance that, at novel’s end, merely threatens Rachel Verinder but overtakes Clarissa Stamp.

Stamp’s misery can, additionally, be assimilated to Ezra Jennings’. Suspected of a crime he did not commit, Jennings labors on, hopelessly mired in undeserved opprobrium. Separated from the woman he loves, he dies alone. Clarissa Stamp, for her part, is framed by Commissioner Gauche as a murderess, and she endures a very public humiliation. Like Jennings, she is destined for a lonely and companionless end. In The Moonstone, a legacy of money frees its recipient to take his or her own life in hand and move on; in Murder on the Leviathan, no real movement forward is possible.

Critics have tended to read Akunin’s early novels fairly optimistically. N. Potanina suggests that the author sets his Erast Fandorin series in the Victorian period because he cherishes its “predictability” and “orderliness” (44). A. Ranchin cites the novels’ “cozy and secure” ambiance (237). Even Elena Baraban, who argues that Akunin takes a critical view of the nineteenth century, nevertheless concludes that, through advocating “a life with diversity, cultural eclecticism, and the individualized meditation on history,” Akunin’s protagonists “find a way of overcoming pessimism and their own nostalgia for the past” (411). Implicit in all three of these views is the notion that Akunin replicates in his own fiction the cozy, decent world of the Victorian novel.

I would argue that this paints altogether too rosy a picture. In my view, Akunin borrows Collins’s legacies but shifts their signification. Most saliently, Leviathan’s precious gems, unlike the Moonstone, never actually materialize. They have no power of their own and serve solely as disembodied emblems of greed, to which nearly all Akunin’s characters fall victim at one point or another. In The Moonstone, by contrast, greed motivates only a few characters. The fabled stone is less the object of characters’ cravings than a subject in its own right. It evokes many and varied responses in its English admirers, and these responses, in turn, diverge sharply from the ones it calls forth from the Indians. In the end, we come to agree with the Indians that the Moonstone possesses a singular grace, a divine power and might. This grace is, by contrast, absent in Murder on the Leviathan, where the stones themselves show no capacity for active agency. And when Akunin deprives his stones of power, he thereby also deprives his novel of a sense of the uncanny, the presence of which is so crucial to The Moonstone.

In similar fashion, Akunin’s treatment of the painted shawl in Leviathan reveals a world that is less enlivened by grace than we might expect, given our experience of The Moonstone. Akunin’s shawl insidiously displaces the rajah’s stones as the novel’s most proximate object of desire. People die, in the first instance, because of the quest for the shawl, which becomes an end in and of itself. This quest for an object that can procure yet more objects motivates all of Renier’s and Kleber’s plots and schemes. The shawl invokes a superficial facade of desire (when Kleber makes it appear as if the stowaway had tried to rape her) without actually signifying a real passion (since he did not really do it). As a result, the world ofMurder on the Leviathan strikes us as much meaner and emptier than that of The Moonstone.

Significantly, Murder on the Leviathan constitutes neither Akunin’s sole foray into the world of precious stones nor his final word on Wilkie Collins. In A Children’s Book, Akunin returns once again to the thematics of legacy. Here he offers us, like Collins, a single stone – a spectacular sixty-four carat diamond. He christens this rainbow-hued prodigy the “Paradise Apple” and alleges that it was the occasion for Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Biblical Garden.

As A Children’s Book opens, Lastik Fandorin, a twelve-year-old, post-Soviet, Moscow schoolboy, meets the mysterious Professor Van Dorn. Van Dorn tells the impressionable Lastik that life as we know it naturally inclines towards a perfect balance between good and evil. Over the course of human history this balance has been imperiled time and again by a massive diamond – the Paradise Apple – that acts as an active and dynamic force for evil. Throughout the centuries, men and women have coveted the Paradise Apple: some have regarded it as no more than a magnificent bauble; others have desired it as a commodity that might easily be turned into cash; and yet others have identified it as the philosopher’s stone, the alchemist’s tool for transforming ignorance into knowledge and dross into gold. The diamond, according to Professor Van Dorn, is a force unto itself, and when it is threatened by humans, it responds by provoking calamity. This calamity always takes the form of a sixty-four-carat shift in the world’s moral economy towards evil.

Van Dorn tells Lastik that he has invented a means of destroying the Paradise Apple and, thereby, of halting its periodic depredations. It is Lastik’s duty to find the stone because, as it turns out, both Professor Van Dorn and Lastik Fandorin are descendants of a greedy crusader, Theo Dorn, who unearthed the Paradise Apple on Golgotha after the 1099 siege of Jerusalem. Had Theo not dug it up, the stone would presumably have lain forever undisturbed at the foot of Christ’s cross. As is, the Paradise Apple has now become Lastik’s moral inheritance; given that Theo reintroduced the diamond into human affairs – much to humanity’s detriment – Theo’s descendants (and Lastik in particular) must take responsibility for neutralizing it.

Van Dorn informs Lastik that the Paradise Apple is known to have been in Moscow in 1914. He therefore invites Lastik to travel back in time by squeezing through a “chronohole,” a narrow passage connecting different epochs. In 1914, Lastik is supposed to meet up with his great grandfather, the detective Erast Fandorin from Murder on the Leviathan, and convince him to locate the stone. Lastik is more than willing to oblige and, outfitted with a “unibook,” a laptop computer that reveals the location of Moscow’s many chronoholes, he attempts to find the diamond and avert World War I. Unfortunately, Erast Fandorin has recently left Moscow, and things do not go as planned. Lastik is forced to navigate several chronoholes, hurtling backwards and forwards through time. It is specifically his adventures in 1914, however, that are most important for the argument advanced in this article, for it is through these particular adventures that Akunin reengages Collins’s Moonstone.

A Children’s Book’s dialogue with The Moonstone is rather narrowly focused. A Children’s Book consists of five subsections, and Collins serves as a primary intertext only for the second of them, the part entitled “Yesterday.” Additionally, there is but one legacy in A Children’s Book, the legacy of responsibility for the Paradise Apple. The Moonstone’s nightgown and various monetary bequests find no equivalents in this novel of Russian life. Other points of confluence such as setting, characterization, and narration have likewise disappeared. Even so, the traces of Collins are unmistakable, most specifically in A Children’s Book’s plot structures.

In “Yesterday,” after failing to locate Erast Fandorin, Lastik falls in with Diabolo Diabolini, a circus performer, magician, and jewel thief. Diabolini has heard rumors of a huge diamond belonging to a Russian general named Brianchaninov, who looted it during the siege of Peking. Brianchaninov’s wife has arranged a nameday celebration for their daughter and invited Diabolini to perform. The magician introduces his young assistant, Lastik, promising to transform him into a clairvoyant, dematerialized spirit. While the party guests are distracted by this “magic” trick, Lastik grabs the Paradise Apple and runs. Unhappily, having succeeded in re-stealing the already-stolen diamond, Lastik quickly falls back into the clutches of Diabolini. The two repair to a cheap boardinghouse, where Diabolini prepares to cut the diamond into a number of smaller stones. Lastik takes it and escapes by means of a clothesline connected to a neighboring building. He runs over the roof and bolts down a stairwell with Diabolo Diabolini hot on his trail. Faced with certain capture and the loss of the Paradise Apple, Lastik dives into another chronohole and lands in 1605, where he encounters a new set of adventures.

Thus, “Yesterday” offers a highly condensed and abridged version of the plot of The Moonstone. In a relatively few pages, we learn of a magnificent diamond which has been stolen during the sack of a colonized Asian country. The man who takes the diamond feels no moral compunction, and he brings it home with him after the siege is over. The diamond makes its next appearance at the party for a young girl’s nameday, the Russian equivalent to an English birthday. At this party, guests are entertained by a conjurer and his boy assistant. The diamond disappears, ultimately fetching up in a boardinghouse. Destruction hangs heavy over the stone, but a savior spirits it out of a locked room by running across the roof. If we were to pare The Moonstone down to a schematic, skeletal plot line, we would end up with something like “Yesterday.”

This stripped down version of events is Akunin’s bleakest comment on The Moonstone. For all its brevity, it is fiercer in its ultimate vision than is Murder on the Leviathan. As we have already seen, in the earlier novel the rajah’s stones lack the Moonstone’s sacred capacity for preservation because they lack the quality of subjective agency. In A Children’s Book, the Paradise Apple has regained agency, but it now represents the power of destruction rather than preservation. It has become, in other words, the surrogate of Shiva, not Vishnu. Because Diabolo Diabolini has dared to lift his hand against the stone (he attempts to cut it with a diamond saw), the Paradise Apple retaliates. Even though Lastik absconds with it, he does so too late: as we watch him pelting down the street towards the 1605 chronohole, we hear a newsboy call out that the Archduke Ferdinand has been killed in Sarajevo.

The basic pattern established in “Yesterday” repeats itself in the novel’s next section “The Day before Yesterday.” Once again the Paradise Apple is seized by an evil man – this time an alchemist – and once again an attempt is made against it – the alchemist drops it into boiling mercury. Lastik retrieves and hides the stone before jumping down yet another chronohole, but once again it is too late. Civil war breaks out in Moscow.

Lastik’s next destination, “Tomorrow,” is an undated year in a post-apocalyptic future. In “Tomorrow” only a few hundred humanoids remain after a nuclear holocaust. Lastik escapes through a final chronohole and returns to his own era (“Hurrah! Today Again”), where Professor Van Dorn waits to hear how his voyage to 1914 has sped. Undaunted by its failure, Van Dorn determines to send either Lastik or yet another of Theo’s descendents after the stone again.

Akunin structures the plot of A Children’s Book around the quest for a legacy that takes the form of a storied diamond imbued with the power to determine its own fate. In Collins’ similarly structured novel, we learn that the Moonstone’s ultimate fate is vague and mysterious. We are assured in the novel’s closing sentences that the diamond will continue to be a subject (not an object!) of life’s affairs: “So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?” (482) Collins projects no particular sense of urgency regarding the Moonstone’s fate; instead, he leaves us bemused and no more than mildly curious. Akunin parts with us on a more exacting note: “‘Well, what’s to be done?’ The professor spread his hands. ‘Somebody’s going to have to save the world. So don’t lose heart, my young friend. To be continued.’” (541)14 Like the Moonstone, the Paradise Apple is still abroad in the world, working its will. Akunin’s protagonists, by contrast with Collins’s, will continue to search for it and, given what we have learned in “Tomorrow,” they will assuredly find it. Professor Van Dorn will attempt to destroy the stone, and this attempt will rekindle the stone’s will to evil. As a result, most of the world will perish. For Akunin, the Paradise Apple’s “next adventures” (which he rephrases as “to be continued”) are much more than the stuff of mild curiosity. They are the drivers of mankind’s disastrous future.

In Hindu mythology, Brahma creates the world, Vishnu preserves it, and Shiva destroys it. This work of creation, preservation, and destruction is cyclical and repetitive. In The Moonstone Wilkie Collins focuses on the task of preservation. He asks us to believe that it is ongoing and open ended and that destruction can somehow be averted. Nearly one hundred and fifty years after The Moonstone’s first publication, Boris Akunin, by contrast, shows us that, regardless of how stable a society may appear, it will inevitably come to a violent end. By invoking Collins’s Moonstone, he summons up the comfortable verities of Victorian England only to turn them inside out and demolish them. His final words guarantee that, despite how bad things have already been, there is still plenty of room for them to get worse. A Children’s Book warns us that we have ignored the lessons of the legacies that have come to us, and that, with each new day, we come ever closer to our impending doom.

In the intertextual chain comprising The MoonstoneMurder on the Leviathan, and A Children’s Book,The Moonstone initiates the thematics of western interference in eastern affairs. The “Honorable” John Herncastle appropriates an Indian gem, having willfully disregarded its sacred nature; the novel’s other English characters are not even aware that the Moonstone holds a special significance. Ultimately, the stone returns to India, leaving the novel’s protagonists very little wiser for their brief experience of it. To be sure, certain local lessons have been learned – Godfrey Ablewhite’s hypocrisy has been exposed, and Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder have recognized Ezra Jennings’ moral worth, for example – but no one (with the arguable exception of Mr. Murthwaite) acknowledges the greater lesson concerning Britain’s colonial meddling in India.

In Murder on the Leviathan, Akunin positions his Russian detective, Erast Fandorin, as the dispassionate observer of a similar conflict between western desires and eastern values. The novel’s various European protagonists actively vie for the opportunity to acquire a fortune in Indian gemstones. The stones’ implied owner, the half-European Charles Renier, also begins to lust after the stones – in fully European fashion – once he falls under the sway of the adventuress, Marie Sanfon/Renate Kleber. Alone of all the characters, the easterner, Gintaro Aono, and the semi-easterner, Erast Fandorin, remain indifferent; the stones exercise no appeal for them. Fandorin and Aono can stand on the sidelines, contemplating the furious competition among French and English contenders for the gem horde, and offer no opinion. In the end, Fandorin intervenes solely in order to save lives – the Leviathan is in danger of foundering, and it is within his power to save it. Once the ship has been saved, he disposes of the shawl-map that reveals the location of the gem cache in hopes of averting yet another round of contention.

Akunin implies that in 1878, the year in which Murder on the Leviathan is set, the Russian Erast Fandorin is able to weigh the east’s and west’s contending claims to India’s legacies, because he himself is neither fully eastern nor, yet, fully western. As an objective observer, he calms the discord, but is, sadly, unable to rescue his fellow passengers from their bankrupt moral state. If we generalize from Fandorin’s particular case, as we have with the characters in The Moonstone, we can conclude that the greater Russian Empire of 1878, functioning as an extension of its self-possessed detective, stands apart from, and even above, European colonial greed.

Only a few decades later, however, on the eve of World War I, Akunin’s Russia can no longer pretend to dispassionate objectivity. As Akunin reveals in A Children’s Book, Lastik Fandorin and, indeed, Erast Fandorin are the lineal descendants of the rapacious western crusader, Theo Dorn. Ipso facto, they, like the western protagonists in Murder on the Leviathan, are implicated in Europe’s colonial mis/adventures. When Erast absents himself from his Moscow home in 1914 and Lastik, therefore, fails to acquire the Paradise Apple, Europe implodes. The Moonstone’s ultimate legacy, then, takes the form of a realization that Russia too is enmeshed in Europe’s gem lust, which is to say, in its fatal exploitation of the Other. Immersed in the illusory coziness of Akunin’s late Imperial period, Russians may briefly believe otherwise, but the cataclysms of the twentieth century will quickly disabuse them of their error.

In Christopher GoGwilt’s apt formulation, “The Moonstone is exemplary because it plots the respectable middle-class ‘self’ as an effect of a whole range of other people’s scandals.” (77) This recognition of others’ transgressions as our own is the essential legacy that The Moonstone bequeaths to Boris Akunin. Although Murder on the Leviathan briefly allows us to believe in Russia as an unaffected witness to others’ misdeeds, A Children’s Book effectively unmasks our belief as folly.

Works Cited

Akunin, Boris. Detskaia kniga [A Children’s Book]. Moscow: OLMA-Press, 2005.

—– Murder on the Leviathan. Trans. Andrew Bromfield. New York: Random House, 2004.

Baraban, Elena V. “A Country Resembling Russia: The Use of History in Boris Akunin’s Detective Novels.”Slavic and East European Journal 48 (2004) 392-320.

Blumberg, Ilana. “Collins’s Moonstone: The Victorian Novel as Sacrifice, Theft, Gift and Debt.” Studies in the Novel 37 (2005): 162-85.

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: Signet, 2002.

D’iakova, Elena. “Boris Akunin kak uspeshnaia otrasl’ rossiiskoi promyshlennosti” [Boris Akunin as a Successful Branch of Russian Industry”]. Novaia gazeta 45, July 2, 2001.

Gibbons, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 10 http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1559&chapter=90438&layout=html&Itemid=27 .

GoGwilt, Christopher. The Fiction of Geopolitics: Afterimages of Culture, from Wilkie Collins to Alfred Hitchcock. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Heller, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Hennelly, Mark M. Jr. “Detecting Collins’ Diamond: From Serpentstone to Moonstone.”

Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39 (1984): 25-47.

Kasper, Karlheinz. “BAkunin und andere: Fiction, Semi-Fiction, Non-Fiction oder Pulp-Fiction?” Zeitschrift für Slawistik 47 (2002) 193-201.

Khagi, Sofya. “Boris Akunin and Retro Mode in Contemporary Russian Culture.” Toronto Slavic Quarterly13 (2005) (no pagination; electronic publication).

Nayder, Lillian. “Afterword.” Wilkie Collins. The Moonstone. New York: Signet, 2002.

—– Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997

Pirogov, L. “Konets tsitaty” [“The End of Quotation”]. Literaturnaia gazeta 15, April 11-17, 2001.

Potanina, N. “Dikkensovskii kod ‘fandorinskogo proekta’” [“The Dickensian Code of the Fandorin Project”].Voprosy literatury (2004) 41-48.

Ranchin, Andrei. “Izobretenie intellektuali’noi belletristiki: retsepty minuvshego desiatiletiia. Romany B. Akunina i klassicheskaia traditsiia.” [“The Invention of Intellectual Belletristics: Recipes from the Past Decade. B. Akunin’s Novels and the Classical Tradition”] Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 67 (2004): 325-66.

Reed, John R. “The Stories of the Moonstone.” Wilkie Collins to the Forefront: Some Reassessments. Ed. Nelson Smith & R.C. Terry. New York: AMS, 1995. 91-100.

Thoms, Peter. The Windings of the Labyrinth. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992.

Wasiolek, Edward. “Design in the Russian Novel.” The Russian Novel from Pushkin to Pasternak. Ed. John Garrard. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. 51-63.


References

  1. Ilana Blumberg views what I term “legacies” rather differently, referring to the Moonstone’s peripeteias as “a history of theft and gift” (162). []
  2. Christopher GoGwilt points out that the legacy is a “standard feature of Victorian novel plotting” but also indicates that, in The Moonstone, the eponymous stone is not only a family legacy but also “loot from a British military campaign in India,” i.e., a matter of international scandal (60). Tamar Heller similarly suggests that the stone directs our attention in two different directions, “the private world of English families and the public dimension of imperialism” (144). []
  3. Boris Akunin is the nom de plume of Grigorii Chkhartishvili, an extremely prolific scholar and novelistwhose first detective novel (The Winter Queen [Azazel in the original Russian]) appeared in 1998. The Moonstone became quite popular in Russia through a translation made in 1947 by M. Shaginian. Boris Akunin, in any case, has an excellent command of English and is known to read English-language fiction voraciously. Elena V. Baraban provides a good overview of the early novels as well as of Akunin’s approach to history. []
  4. Karlheinz Kasper refers to the resulting novels as “semi-fiction” (“In der Fandorin-Serie kombiniert er Realgeschichte und literarische ‘Fiction’ zwecks Neubewertung der russischen Geschichte und ihrer Mythen zu ‘Semi-Fiction’” (201). []
  5. The exception is N. Potanina, who has picked up on Akunin’s own assertion that his 2001 He Lover of Death [Liubovnik smerti] is a “Dickensian detective novel” (44; all translations of Russian-language secondary sources are mine [M.A.M.]). Potanina offers a comparison of The He Lover of Death to various novels by Dickens. Unfortunately, she, like the majority of Akunin critics, builds her argument largely on generalizations. []
  6. Elena V. Baraban, in her discussion of Akunin, has linked “the reconsideration of history in Russian media, films, and literature” with “the transition from Soviet to post-Soviet Russia” (397). Svetlana Boym has treated the phenomenon in Russian culture at large. A. Ranchin states forthrightly that Akunin writes “not about the nineteenth-century Russia that we have lost but, if you will, about the Russia that we have gained. About our times” (250). []
  7. Murder on the Leviathan is the third in a series of novels featuring Erast Fandorin (a second series centers on his descendant, Nicholas Fandorin). The first Fandorin novel is The Winter Queen [Azazel]; the second is The Turkish Gambit [Turetskii gambit]. Serious Akunin criticism (i.e., criticism as such, which probes more deeply than mere interviews with the author) has, thus far, been limited in quantity. It has also been fairly general in scope; almost all serious articles treat several of Akunin’s novels in broad strokes rather than focusing on any one in particular. To the best of my knowledge, no essay to date has focused solely on Leviathan and, indeed, none has accorded it much more than cursory mention. []
  8. Khagi offers a scholarly take on arguments advanced in journalistic format by authors like L. Pirogov and E. D’iakova. Khagi’s’s article on “Retro Mode” appeared in electronic format, without pagination. []
  9. Akunin criticism to date has centered on the Erast Fandorin series, as well as on the novels about Sister Pelagia and Nicholas Fandorin. No studies that take A Children’s Book into account have yet appeared. []
  10. The notion that things might not have a place, that they might not “fit,” has been identified by Edward Wasiolek as the most “poignant, insistent, widespread” fear of Russian novelists (54). []
  11. A growing number of scholars have pointed out Collins’s anti-imperialist agenda. Heller, for example, suggests that The Moonstone’s “hierarchies of gender and class that undergird British culture replicate the politics of colonialism” (144 []
  12. GoGwilt suggests that the Moonstone is “an object of loot and plunder … [which] provides a fictional formula for articulating the relation between culture and capital” (80). Akunin’s stones, of course, focus our attention in one only direction – capital. []
  13. On the similar confluence of the motifs of the missing gem, stained nightgown and rape in Collins, see Nayder, Wilkie Collins, 122. []
  14. Translation is mine [M.A.M.]. A Children’s Book has not yet been translated into English. []

Wilkie Collins’s Legacies: ‘The Moonstone’ in Boris Akunin’s ‘Murder on the Leviathan’ and ‘Children’s Book’ by Marcia Morris
The Wilkie Collins Journal 11 (2012)

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