Despite a title worthy of an Alan Furst novel, The Russian Affair is not a thriller. Set in 1960s Moscow, it is a tale of the KGB, but this new volume by the author of April in Paris is barely even a spy novel. Translated from the German, its prose is graceful and clear, telling the story slowly and without too much misdirection.
Michael Wallner’s heroine is Anna, a model Soviet citizen of the Brezhnev era. A former pioneer girl, she makes her living in the suitably proletarian pursuit of painting houses, an occupation which lends her a kind of muscular beauty. Then she catches the eye of Alexey, a member of the nomenklatura, and the two embark upon a surreal love affair.
It’s not long before the KGB recruits Anna to spy on her new lover, who is the Deputy Minister for science research, and she is hardly bothered by the request. Espionage is her duty as a patriot, and her new career makes life easier for her family, even as the stresses cause her nuclear unit to fray. It isn’t long, of course, before her happy new life collapses in on her.
Between chapters, and often several times within them, the story leaps ahead a day or week, leaving the reader disoriented until the characters begin to recall what had happened while we weren’t watching them. It’s a simple device that becomes comforting once one gets the hang of it, and it keeps the narrative from ever becoming tiresome.
Even as the easy life the KGB has given her turns sour, and Anna learns that espionage is never simple, she doesn’t abandon her faith in her country. It would have been easy to end the book with a car chase, a few gunshots and a quick defection to the land of washing machines and color television. But by instilling Anna with real patriotism—even for a country which is meant to be the bad guy—Wallner has produced something unusual for a spy novel: a hero who gives a damn.