Don’t be misled by claims that Lebedev is “Russia’s Le Carré”: he’s a much more literary author, whose skeletal spy-novel plot is merely a framework for twin psychological studies and a complex parable about his homeland. The alternating memories of Kalitin and his chief nemesis, Shershnev, encompass all the crises and calamities of almost a century of Soviet and post-Soviet history, from the revolution to Chernobyl and the Chechen wars.
Despite its form, this is much more a literary novel than a thriller, and while Kalitin waits for his sins to catch up with him he reflects on his career and the responsibilities of science. Meanwhile, inexplicable delays dog the assassins, the more thoughtful of whom tries to come to terms with his past behaviour in Chechnya. Perhaps we are meant to see the invisible hand of God at work here. But with its art-house sensibility and emblematic figures, among them the persecuted pastor, Untraceable feels less timeless than dated.
Lebedev is known in Russia for novels that dig deep into the country’s tortured relationship with its past. The Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich lauds him for exposing how “we have not gotten over and made sense of the Stalin period”. In Untraceable, his fifth, he takes the spy novel and transforms it into something akin to a political, even spiritual, allegory. The defector’s poison stands for the legacy of unresolved historical evils that now pollute the world, while the secret city it was created in was founded in the years of Nazi-Soviet collaboration pre-1939. When the defector makes the prototype of his poison it kills his wife, Vera. Her name, the book stresses, means “faith”.