The Senility of Vladimir P by Michael Honig, book review: How power corrupts

A novel that imagines a senile Russian ex-president in thrall to his crooked staff

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 25 February 2016 15:45
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Fit as a fiddle: the real President Putin in the peak of health, fishing in 2007
Fit as a fiddle: the real President Putin in the peak of health, fishing in 2007

Michael Honig has had a neat idea and executed it in a sharp, spare and entertaining way. Vladimir P, five times president of post-Soviet Russia, is eight years out of office and inhabits a twilight world where memory, hallucination and troubled sleep are very occasionally punctured by reality.

Now confined to a suite in what used to be his state dacha outside Moscow – the demarcation between personal and public property having become somewhat blurred – he is ministered to 24/7 by a male nurse, Nikolai Sheremetev, who has the misfortune to be one of the last truly honest human beings in the residence, if not in all Russia.

The novel is the story of Sheremetev's rude awakening to the morass of plundering that surrounds (and eventually engulfs) him, interwoven with episodes of history as Vladimir re-lives old rivalries and wrestles with his nemesis, a vicious, taunting Chechen.

And all this provides for good slapstick stuff, delivered with satirical edge and style. The cook has a fine line in double-billing; Vladimir's two chauffeurs are actually running an elite limo service; the groundsmen have converted the lawns into a market garden, complete with poly-tunnels. And most of these abject characters, it turns out, were once decent people who had their own bit of bother with the authorities and concluded that, if you couldn't beat them, you joined them. Sheremetev, in the tradition of Russia's "holy fools", is the last to succumb. Thus is the insidious nature of corruption laid bare.

The unsparing depiction of Vladimir's dementia is a particular strength of the book, and perhaps owes something to the author's medical background. The speed with which the past president is shown tuning in (or out), the vivid detail of his flashbacks, and the prevailing bewilderment are excruciatingly believable.

But the author's purpose clearly does not stop here, though where it does stop is harder to gauge. Does the fictional fate of Vladimir P (barely even a cypher for Vladimir Putin) offer a pretext for a clever satirical romp, or is it rather intended as a deadly serious excoriation of the real Russian president?

If the latter, and the parallels with Putin's real career strongly suggest this, I admit to misgivings. So many and close are these parallels – the second Chechen war, Georgia and Ukraine; the bargain with the oligarchs; the imprisonment, and freeing, of Russia's richest man; the deprived childhood; the macho posturing, the killing of journalists, and the reprise (with the customary misinterpretation) of well-known Putin quotations – that what is actually fiction may be all too easily accepted as fact.

The result is a "Putin" portrait of unrelieved blackness, which perpetuates all the negative stereotypes including the Tsar complex, the Chechen-hater, the war-monger, the arch-embezzler, that so blight the Russian president's image abroad. He is a money-grubbing tyrant, so the argument goes, who missed the chance to remake Russia as a democratic state and left behind a cesspit of corruption instead.

That may or may not be the judgement of history, but I must admit to a certain unease about "faction", whatever the subject or medium. This is, I readily admit, an entirely personal hang-up.

So my memo to self on The Senility of Vladimir P is this: lighten up, savour the quips, enjoy the show, and never forget that it is all – or mostly – the product of Michael H's rich imagination.

Atlantic, £12.99. Order at £10.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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