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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Sergei Lebedev

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To purchase Untraceable

Title: Untraceable
Author: Sergei Lebedev
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 241 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Untraceable - US
Untraceable - UK
Untraceable - Canada
Das perfekte Gift - Deutschland
directly from: New Vessel Press
  • Russian title: Дебютант
  • Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

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Our Assessment:

B : quite solid thriller, but a grim picture

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 13/3/2021 .
Financial Times . 12/3/2021 Peter Pomerantsev
Publishers Weekly . 17/11/2020 .
TLS . 2/4/2021 Lesley Chamberlain
Wall St. Journal . 19/2/2021 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sergei Lebedev's story transcends its factual source material. On the surface, Untraceable is a taut spy thriller with Gothic flourishes. (...) Woven into the cloak-and-dagger chase is a complex tale of memory. Failed relationships, missions and regimes haunt the novel's characters as they do John le Carré's." - The Economist

  • "(H)e 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." - Peter Pomerantsev, Financial Times

  • "Assured prose is a plus (...), but the weak ending will disappoint genre readers, as will the lack of action and heroic characters. Those who prefer a more literary approach will enjoy the change of pace." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The first half of Untraceable is almost unsatisfyingly cold: there is no social interaction (.....) In the second half, we are given just enough human interaction to warm things up. (...) The topicality of this fierce novel risks overshadowing its literary and literary historical qualities. To my mind it invites comparisons with two beacons of extremism from the earlier twentieth century: Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and the terrifyingly aestheticized war diaries of Ernst Jünger." - Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Untraceable begins with the assassination of a man once part of the Soviet secretive services who had defected and been settled in the West with a new identity. The assassination is of the ripped-from-the-headlines sort -- a discreet poisoning in a public place, so quick no one except the victim notices anything out of the ordinary. Death is not instantaneous, however -- and the man manages to gurgle out a few words: "Ambulance ... police ... murder ... not drunk ... poison ... I was poisoned".
       He soon does die, but the circumstances are suspicious enough for an investigation to be launched -- and this, incidentally, brings the actual story into motion. The investigation puts another defector -- Kalitin, a talented chemist -- on the radar of the present-day Russian regime and they set their sights on him. Lieutenant Colonel Shershnev is tasked with taking Kalitin out in his German exile, eventually setting out with a colleague, Major Grebenyuk, in what turns out to be an overly elaborate plan to get to the man who abandoned his motherland. The novel then basically moves back and forth between the two converging storylines, of hunted and hunter(s).
       Lebedev is very focused on character, and spends a great deal of time in fleshing out the two central ones, Kalitin and Shershnev. Many of the chapters dealing with Kalitin, in particular, follow his life-path, from the earliest days to his present-day life, as Lebedev shows how he became the man he was -- and, to some extent still is --, beginning with his early childhood.
       Both Kalitin and Shershnev are children of the Soviet system; Kalitin still remember Stalin's death, when he was a little boy. At a young age already Kalitin came under the spell of his prominent Uncle Igor -- Igor Yurevich Zakharyevsky, who had risen to lieutenant general rank by the time he died. He was a scientist, and Kalitin followed in his footsteps -- and followed him also from the closed scientific center that was the City where Kalitin grew up to 'the Island': "even more closed, equipped with cutting-edge technology" -- and a place completely under Zakharyevsky's control.
       Kalitin's area of expertise was poisons -- culminating in the near-perfect killing substance: "The most stable, the most untraceable substance. Neophyte". (In the original Russian the substance is: дебютант -- 'debutant' -- which doubles as the Russian title of the novel; 'Neophyte' seems a good translation ('debutant' really wouldn't do in English), but one can see why they opted not to use the name of the substance for the English title. And Untraceable is a pretty good choice, as it is what both the poison and the characters are meant to be (though, in fact ...).) When Kalitin defected -- only after the fall of the Soviet Union, in a rapidly decaying Russia -- he still had hopes of putting his deadly expertise to use -- but in the end he was more or less shoved off into the countryside, his position: "an insignificant, albeit very well-paid, job as an outside consultant in investigations dealing with chemical weapons".
       Neophyte is an almost wonder drug, an ideal killer -- if correctly employed. But, for example, in the wake of one natural-seeming death a suspicious vial was found; true: "no trace of any substance was found. That was a trace in itself. Pointing to Neophyte". Everyone puts rather a lot of stock in it -- including both Kalitin (yes, he took some with him when he fled) and the Shershnev/Grebenyuk-duo prizing their small stocks above almost anything else they carry as the story wends its way to it end.
       Untraceable is a thriller, but even more so a character(s)-study, Lebedev peeling back the layers to expose these men for who they are. (Another defector, who plays a pivotal role both at the beginning and end of the story, also recounts his own unusual story at the end of the novel, in another exposé of the lengths the Soviet regime went to to cripple its critics.)
       Kalitin's life story, at its major stages, is unrolled, and shows a man obsessed with science and a scientific career -- but almost entirely unconcerned as to the consequences of what he does, even though the purpose of the substances couldn't be clearer: what else is poison good for, after all ? He is no ideologue:

     Kalitin was not a faithful Communist. he knew the clichés and rituals well, and had a party membership card -- without it he would not have risen beyond laboratory head. Kalitin was attracted by the paradoxical freedom-in-prison that the Island offered in a land of ideologized, dogmatically mediated science.
       Lebedev is particularly good on the late Soviet period of decline, mirrored on the Island (though the catastrophe at Chernobyl does prove a convenient means for Kalitin to get rid of one of his rivals), as well as then the quickly failing Russian after-state. It is telling -- and nicely damning -- that Kalitin only defects after the collapse of the old regime.
       We learn less of Shershnev's past, but more of his present; he is a typical, dutiful officer -- serving the state, regardless of the master. The Russian government he works for differs little, at the level of his operations, from the previous Soviet one -- but it seems all the same to him. Like Kalitin, he merely blindly does what he's very good at -- morally reprehensible though it too is.
       The thriller-part of Untraceable is decent, with quite good suspense, especially as Shershnev and his partner close in, but the professional Shershnev is understandably annoyed about how elaborate the plan they're supposed to follow has been made:
     He was unhappy from the start with the travel plan imposed by the bosses and the cover story they provided. He would have done it fast, in one day. Fly in, complete the op, fly out. That's how the agents from the neighbors took out Vyrin.
       What follows is a veritable comedy of errors, as a whole parade of small things go wrong, seemingly every damn step of the way. Shershnev is fairly unflappable, but it sure feels -- a bit too much ... -- like the gods and fate are conspiring against the mission at every turn. (And since the approach is so elaborate, there are a lot of turns.)
       Another defector, who plays a prominent role as things begin to come to a head and then shares his own story -- fascinating in and of itself -- adds an interesting final twist to the whole novel with his role in everything that happened, both in setting things in motion at the start of all this and then seeing them through.
       Untraceable is not so much an indictment of the Soviet and then its Russian-successor regimes -- though they are certainly presented as reprehensible, Lebedev takes it pretty much as an obvious given that nothing better can be expected of them -- as of the morally void citizens they produce(d). Both Kalitin and Shershnev are very good at what they do, and driven to do it -- but what they do is beyond contempt. Lebedev shows them as human in his rich portraits -- but human in the worst way, their essential humanity almost entirely carved out; it makes for a somber novel, reflecting a very dark worldview.
       It all works quite well, though in its breadth -- especially Kalitin's backstory -- can feel a bit stretched thin, something compounded by the constant back and forth between the storylines of hunters and hunted. Once Shershnev starts closing in, the tensions certainly rises -- but Lebedev really does layer on those minor mishaps thick, to the extent that they distract from the story; all in all it makes for a slightly uneven mix of thriller and character-portraits
       Lebedev nearly pulls it all off, but not quite; still, Untraceable is a solid thriller, with some decent thriller-twists, as well as a disturbing exposé of a morally bankrupt society and its progeny -- all the more disturbing because Lebedev sees the rot move seamlessly from Soviet to successor regimes, and its characters unable to take what second chances they are offered but rather continuing in their ugly set ways..

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 January 2021

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Untraceable: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Sergei Lebedev (Сергей Лебедев) was born in 1981.

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© 2021 the complete review

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