The Despair Of Arkady Renko

Martin Cruz Smith's latest novel is an evocative exploration of Cuba, tied together with a gripping plot.

Martin Cruz Smith is best known for his gripping novel "Gorky Park" and this - his latest offering - just adds to his reputation as an author who can come up with a stunning book.

The book revolves around the travails of Arkady Renko, a Russian investigator who has been called to Cuba to identify one Sergei Pribluda, a suspected spy and Arkady's old friend. The Cubans find a body which has become horribly bloated after being in the water for many days. Despite incomplete identification, the Cubans are more than willing to consider the case closed and send Arkady back.

However, Arkady remains dissatisfied. This does not affect his considerable melancholy - caused by his wife's death - and soon after, he is planning to commit suicide by injecting himself with drugs he stole from the hospital. It is at this point that the author shows his flair for the ironic. Arkady's assigned translator, a former boxing champion called Rufo Pinero, shows up and after trying to sell him some cigars, attacks him. Acting out of pure instinct, Arkady ends up killing him and this is where the fun starts. The question which begins to haunt Arkady is why anybody would try to kill him when he was about to leave Cuba. And all he has to go on is an old photo of Pribluda and two friends which has the legend "Havana Yacht Club".

Here he ties up with Detective Ofelia Osorio. Hard-working and intelligent, she begins to listen to Arkady as he wanders all over the island, trying to make sense of the situation and figure out what Pribluda was up to. Arkady, in his own inimitable manner, picks up pieces of information from the unlikeliest of places, ranging from the Russian embassy to voodoo-practising mechanics to a baseball bat-wielding detective who tries to scare him off the case. All this time, he is also learning the complexities of Cuban life and trying to live down the natural enmity his nationality evokes.

It is here that he gets a whiff of the mysterious Yacht Club, which seems linked to everything from gambling to arms to political upheaval. Then follows the baffling and exciting chase to uncover the secrets before his time runs out, while trying to save his life and understand Cuba.

The book is gripping. The whole plot is delightful, but when set against the crumbling edifice that is Cuba, it is absolutely brilliant. The actual plot is revealed quite near the end, and is upon you before you realise its true import. Like an expert angler, Smith throws us side-lines that keep us engrossed so that we don't notice the real bait. Of course, his evocative description of Cuba and its sorry plight hit you like a ton of bricks - the poor economy, the faded walls, the decrepit cars (a 1953 model is considered new) - all of this conjures up images that are hard to forget easily.

Smith also hits the jackpot with his choice of characters; Arkady is a phenomenal creation. Witty with a sardonic, understated, ironic manner and a nearly perpetual moroseness, he is a character who seems completely real. And Osorio, street-smart with a survivor's attitude and the desire to get ahead in life, is the ideal foil for Arkady. Quite a few of the other characters come to life quite vividly, which is essentially the USP of this book.

For those who are tired of lawyers and lawsuits, here's one novel which should charge up those reading batteries.

This article was first published on18 Oct 2000.