The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia Review

History as it is written is full of holes, of secrets and of omissions. The so-called “secret histories”, fictional or otherwise, are the stories of the forgotten and the suppressed, the stories of those who have been deprived of a voice to tell their version of the past. Ekatarina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow is not a story about Moscow per se, but rather a novel about those broken and maladjusted people who lack a voice of their own and who don’t quite “fit” into our modern world of progress, improvement and self-realization.

Secret History of Moscow

Check out our interview with Ekaterina Sedia

Galina is one of those people that don’t quite “fit”. She has a history of mental illness and is something of a disappointment to her mother and younger sister with whom she lives in Moscow. One day, her sister Masha suddenly turns into a bird and flies away, and Galina is determined to find out what happened and how to get her sister back. Her enquiries lead her to Yakov, a policeman who is unsuccessfully investigating a string of mysterious disappearances throughout the city. Yakov has in fact seen a man turn into a bird, but he distrusts his eyes – surely magic does not exist and people do not randomly turn into birds! Galina and Yakov cross paths with Fyodor – a homeless and alcoholic artist who seems to sense the existence of another world- one hidden beneath the streets of Moscow and beyond the reflections in mirrors, puddles and windows. Together the three enter into a hidden world in order to find out what has happened to the people turned into birds and who is behind it. In the world under and beyond Moscow, they meet a host of strange people and odd landscapes.

Here reside people who have tried to escape their world, victims of political purges or personal sorrows. Yet the underworld is also a place for the things that have been lost during the course of history. Pagan deities and fairy tale creatures reside in this world of glowing trees, albino birds and icy waters – forgotten by the world above. Helped by some of these creatures and persons, they enter deeper into the hidden world of the lost and forgotten, searching for the power behind the disappearances in Moscow.

The Secret History of Moscow shares many similarities with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, like Gaiman’s novel this book concerns itself with the people who fall into the cracks of society and are overlooked and forgotten. Yet where Gaiman portrays a fantastic and grotesque inversion of London, Sedia’s hidden Moscow is much more fluid. It is not really directed tied to the city in the manner of an inverted mirror, rather it could perhaps best be described as a concrete embodiment of the cultural memory of a people, a memory that includes things that has been omitted from official history:

He thought about the history they had learned in school, and felt a profound sense of gratitude that there was an underground, to supplement the stirring tales of conquests and orderly victories, of revolution and heroes, of thwarted invasions; that there was that hidden side without which nothing made sense. All the while it had been there, and now Fyodor knew why the world used to feel so off-kilter, so careening, so missing something important. He wondered if everyone felt that way, that vague longing for something they believed lost long time ago, but in reality just buried underground.

All societies have their memories, enshrined in official histories and reworked and repeated in popular memory, yet Sedia’s tale of the wreckage of history and the people alienated from modernity is perhaps particularly apt when it comes to Russia, a country that has had a very turbulent history during the 20th century as well as a long heritage of totalitarian regimes.

One of the things that characterize totalitarian regimes is the impulse to control history, often to the point of re-writing it in order to reflect the ideology of the ruling class. This was especially pertinent during the Communist regime, where political purges often required a re-writing of history to the extent that even photos were tampered with. Hence, Sedia’s little novel of secret histories and broken lives has a particular resonance in relation to the story’s Russian setting – one of the aspects that makes it a book that is very different from Gaiman’s, similarities aside.

Sedia’s book is a slim one, which is partly due to her sparing yet lyrical prose, which imbues the narrative with dark and chilled atmosphere both fascinating and forbidding:

The boatman’s vision teemed with so many memories, so many visions, but this new one was a welcome addition. It had a complex bouquet – a hint of habitual misery provided a weakly bitter background to red-hot rage and feeling of helplessness that buckled the boatman’s knees and made him want to forget his immediate task. The pole dug into the silty bottom, pushed away, heaved up in a familiar movement that let him concentrate on savoring his new acquisition. Good choice, he thought, good choice. Not exactly original but nonetheless exciting. Intense. Sadness so profound, his dead heart felt crimson and heavy, like a Persian rose dripping with honey and dew.

Although Sedia’s novel ostensibly is about Galina’s quest to find her transformed sister, this story isn’t really the novel’s central purpose – a reason why the ending feels rather anti-climatic. Rather, the novel is a collection of small stories which are knitted together by the frame that the hidden world provides. These are the stories that are forgotten and repressed, ancient myths, fairy tales and the stories of people persecuted and rejected by the society they have lived in. All in all, Sedia has written an imaginative, poignant and beautiful novel about lost histories – a book that I highly recommend to anyone who likes to stray outside the confines of genre.