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Michael Frayn


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
The novel is set in Cold War Russia, some ten years after the end of the second world war. Paul Manning is living in Moscow, where he is writing a thesis. He receives a visit from Gordon Proctor-Gould, who had attended the same Cambridge college as Manning although they did not know each other at that time.

Proctor-Gould has set up a business for importing and exporting books, art objects and the like and also for recruiting Russians who may be able to enhance understanding and good will between Russia and the West. He appears to be on good terms with the authorities although he speaks not a word of Russian, so he hires Manning as his interpreter.

Soon after he starts working for Proctor-Gould Manning makes the acquaintance of Raya, a blonde girl whom he finds attractive. He hopes for an affair with her but when she meets Proctor-Gould she seems to take a shine to hjm and moves in with him in his hotel room. As she speaks no English and Proctor-Gould has no Russian, Manning has to interpret between them.

I found the early chapters of this book a little slow, but things liven up a lot when Raya enters the scene. Neither Manning nor Proctor-Gould are able to work out what she is really up to. She seems to be a free spirit who makes her own rules and flouts official conventions, but is she really what she seems? Manning suspects she could be a spy. As time goes by she begins to behave more and more outrageously, especially when she starts to steal Proctor-Gould's belongings.

Proctor-Gould is particularly concerned about the theft of some books, which he says he had promised to give to various people. He and Manning set out to try to recover them, and this leads to ever more complicated situations which begin to take on a threatening aspect. Manning starts to believe that Proctor-Gould may not be exactly what he says he is.

Frayn is good at conveying the sense of fear that lurks below the surface of a totalitarian state, but there is also plenty of comedy, and the two are sometimes combined, as when Proctor-Gould and Manning carry out a burglary in an attempt to retrieve the stolen books. But my favourite scene comes when Manning gets very drunk at a dinner where Proctor-Gould makes a speech and demands that Manning interprets it. Manning does so, with some difficulty, only to be told by Proctor-Gould that he has been speaking in English.


%T The Russian Interpreter
%A Frayn, michael
%I Collins
%C London
%D 1966
%P 222pp
%K fiction

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