A young man revolts against a chaotic Communist regime in this debut historical novel.
This first installment in the Article 58 series opens in 1992, with the scene of a crime: the Latvian home of Karlis Perkons, where the body of retired KGB agent Igor Volkov has just been found. Karlis recognizes the Russian as his nemesis from nearly 50 years ago during the brief Soviet occupation of Latvia on the brink of World War II. The scene then shifts to 1940, when an 18-year-old Karlis learns the hard way that Communist soldiers are not to be trifled with. After his friend Peters is arrested and his family is threatened, Karlis joins a secret society of like-minded youths who call themselves the Nonchalants. Together they secretly publish a newspaper condemning the Soviet regime, and plot to blow up the infamous torture chamber known as the Corner House. But the work is incredibly dangerous, especially because Igor has just moved into Karlis’ father’s shop, supposedly as an apprentice but really, the teenager fears, as a spy. The book is illustrated throughout with paintings by Latvian artist Smiltens, on whose life the story is loosely based, and it contains a character list and glossary of Latvian terms at the end. Mathur’s tale draws the reader in immediately with a murder mystery and keeps up a brisk, action-packed pace throughout. The artistic, rebellious, yet sometimes cowardly Karlis works well as a protagonist, and Igor makes a shifty, enigmatic villain. Other characters tend to fade into the background, but in a novel this brief, that’s forgivable. What is less forgivable is the book’s lack of completeness. Although the beginning of a series needs to leave some questions unanswered, this opener ends abruptly with no sense of closure. Worst of all, the murder mystery at the beginning is never mentioned again. While most of the dialogue is passable, some out-of-place exposition (“The Russians have imposed a ridiculous exchange rate, impoverishing most of us”) becomes irritating.
An enjoyable, but unfinished glimpse of Latvian history.