Boris Akunin


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          Boris Akunin is one of the most famous detective-story writers of contemporary Russia. He was born in 1956 into a military officer’s family in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Two major changes loom large in his life. First, he moved from Georgia in the Caucasus to Moscow in relation with his father’s official reassignment when he was two years old. The move was permanent, both geographically and culturally. He has never gone back to Georgia, nor developed since then any particular connection with his birth place, freely stating this in an interview. The second major change was the launching of his career as a detective story writer in Russia in 1998, which coincided with the adoption of his pen name “Boris Akunin,” which he first used for his first detective novel Azazel’.
          He is still actively writing highly popular detective stories. Most likely, people have yet to closely look into his life story because they are still too busy following around his detective stories. Indeed his biographical information seems pretty sparse. A single, truncated run-down of his life has been recycled in various formats such as newspaper articles and interviews, online encyclopedias (one example would be “Laboratoriia fantastiki”, or print reference sources (for example, Sergei Chuprinin’s Russkaia literatura segodnia: novyi putevoditel’ or Tatiana Smorodinskaya’s Encyclopedia of contemporary Russian culture). But what is available now certainly suggests young Akunin developed an interest in letters and culture early in his life. He attended a foreign-language high school in Moscow and became a Japanese Kabuki enthusiast, which is why he decided to enter the Institute of Asia and Africa at Moscow State University, where he graduated in 1979. Apparently, he was a talented and highly motivated linguist, translating into Russian many Japanese (but also some English) belles-lettres. He was also a professional literary critic and scholar, leading to a 14-year career with the prestigious journal Inostrannaia literature, issued by the Russian Academy of Sciences. There, he rose up to the position of deputy editor-in-chief for three years until the end of his career with the journal. Since beginning in 1998, he has established himself as one of the most widely-read writers of contemporary Russia.

          Akunin’s detective novels came out in series, just like some other famous detective writers of contemporary Russia. For example, another million-seller writer Aleksandra Marinina’s came out under such different series as “Nastia Kamenskaia,” “Igor’ Doroshin,” and “Vzgliad iz vechnosti”; or another million-seller Dar’ia Dontsova’s under “Dzhentl’men syska Ivan Podushkin.” Akunin called his first series “Novyi detektiv” (New detective). On the surface, it sounded simple enough, but it has frequently been recognized as a “new” literary undertaking in Russian crime fiction. This is exactly what Akunin said he intended to do. As one commentator put it, with the series, Akunin opened up the field of “pulp for the intellectuals” in Russia (Russian writers since 1980, p.4), something that would attract the interests of the middle-class professionals of post-Soviet Russia. It was far more than “violence and sex,” the staple of post-Soviet lowbrow Russian pulp fiction. The series revolved around one brilliant Moscow detective named Erast Fandorin (1856- ), contributing his name to the series, which was called “Prikliucheniia Erasta Fandorina” (Adventures of Erast Fandorin). Most of all, it was set against a historical background populated by easily recognizable historical events and figures of tsarist Russia. Thus, there were the tragic stampede accident that happened on the day of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, or the war hero of General Mikhail Dmitrievich Skobelev (1843-1882), one of the heroes of the Russo-Turkish War and Russia’s military rule of Central Asia. His novels are also famous for allusions to, and pastiches from Russian literary classics (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc).
          There are several interesting questions about Akunin as the detective-story writer. For example, how did Akunin approach the question of his Georgian heritage, particularly in view of the tense relationship between Russia and Georgia in recent years? What did he see in Japanese culture and what made him specialize in Japanese literature? Why did he decide to change his career from a successful translator and literary scholar to a detective novel writer? What did he see in the genre of detective stories, particularly in the context of post-Soviet Russia? But probably one of the most intriguing questions is his pen name B. Akunin. He adopted it—and his Russian readers know it!—from the Japanese Kanji word meaning “evil person.” Furthermore, when spelled “B. Akunin,” it also alludes to the famous anarchist of 19th-century Russia, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876). What did Akunin possibly intend with such a suggestive pen name? Did it have anything to do with his popularity as a detective story writer in contemporary Russia? All these questions will probably have to wait for answers until a full-fledged scholarly biography has been written on B. Akunin.

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