The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.

Chronology

The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.

Geography

When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Places

  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.


Related links

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith (2010)

She crossed the road to look at the bus shelter. It had been built during a period of optimism, and although the pain had faded and holes had been mysteriously punched through the wall, Maya could still make out the faint outline of a rocket ship lifting off the ground, aspiring to more. The bus route had been closed for years. The shelter was mainly used now as a pissoir and message centre: GO FUCK YOURSELF, I FUCKED YOUR MOTHER, HEIL HITLER, OLEG SUCKS COCK.(p.118)

Three Stations is the nickname Muscovites give to Komsomol Square because of the proximity of three mainline railway stations, as well as the intersection of two metro lines and ten lanes of traffic, ‘a Circus Maximus with cars’ (p.12). Into its vortex are swept the worst scum of Moscow.

Men with vague intentions idled in small groups, beers in hand, watching prostitutes grind by. The women walked with a predatory eye and looked as likely to eat their clients as have sex with them. (p.13)

This is the shortest (277 pages) and most Muscovite of the Arkady Renko novels, as it uses its characters and plot to explore the dingy surrounds, the violent underworld, and the moneyed corruption of Arkady’s home town. Its 36 chapters are short and punchy, making it feel fast-moving and edgy.

Arkady

Senior Moscow crime investigator Arkady Renko is in deep poo with his boss, prosecutor Zurin, despite solving the mystery of ‘Stalin’s ghost’ and nailing two colleagues who turned out to be murderers in the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

Zurin has forbidden him to work on any case. Typically, Arkady gets round this ban by simply tagging along with his assistant, the trying-to-give-up-alcohol detective Viktor Orlov. The novel opens with the pair standing over the body of a murdered prostitute in a shabby trailer near the three Stations. She seems to have been poisoned then her skirt hitched up around her waist and her legs carefully arranged so one ankle is touching the other heel. Why?

They follow a power cable from the one naked bulb in the trailer, through rubbish outside, to the nearest militia office: i.e. the police appear to have been pimping her out. This comes as no surprise since successive Renko novels have taught us that Russian police are often worse than the criminals they supposedly pursue; someone who’s been burgled often finds the militia removing any valuables the burglars missed.

Arkady names the corpse ‘Olga’ and gets an old schoolfriend, fat Willi Pazenko, to do an autopsy. She was given knock-out pills then poisoned with ether, which has remained in her asphyxiated lungs.

Zhenya

For the last couple of novels Arkady’s life has been enlivened by the occasional presence of Zhenya, a street kid who flops in his apartment sometimes, but also goes missing for stretches. Zhenya is a larger presence in this book than usual, as we see him fitting in with the hundreds if not thousands of street kids who infest the squalid Three Stations area. Cruz Smith repeats the stunning fact, first mentioned in Stalin’s Ghost, that there are anything up to 50,000 children living wild on the streets of Moscow, having run away from the traditional Russian, alcoholic, abusive home, and who have contributed to an epidemic of petty crime, mugging, arson and vandalism (p.102).

Zhenya differs from most of the kids in that he is a chess genius, rarely seen nott clutching his precious board. In the previous novel we learn that his father, Osip Lysenko, spotted his talent from an early age and used him to lure unwary passengers on trains or in waiting rooms into chess games which Zhenya was briefed to lose until the gull could be persuaded to bet big money on a game – at which point Zhenya wiped the floor with him. If Zhenya made any mistakes, let alone lost, his father beat him. That’s why he ran away when he was about 8 and Arkady first met him at one of Moscow’s many refuges for children.

Zhenya is 15 now and playing chess for money is the only life skill he has. Thus, throughout the novel there are scenes where he persuades unwary travellers between the three stations to bet on a match with him, with variable results, including violence.

Maya

The novel actually opens by introducing us to a simple-minded young woman, Maya Pospelova, aged 16. She is on a train to Moscow with her very small baby, Katya. When she goes outside the carriage to breast feed it she is confronted by a drunken soldier who threatens her for a blowjob. She is rescued by a sweet old lady, calling herself Auntie Lenya, who smacks the soldier and sends him off, before helping Maya back to her seat, giving her some of Auntie Lenya’s nice tea etc, generally fussing over her and telling her to get some rest while she looks after the baby.

When Maya wakes up the train is in Moscow station and Auntie Lenya and the baby are gone. Distraught, she searches all over the train, asks the guard, the driver, any station official she can find, and then the police. Nada. Nothing.

It is now that she is spotted by Zhenya who gets talking to her. He takes pity on her and takes her back to his secret base, a luxury casino near the station, named after Peter the Great, which has recently been closed down and mothballed, but which Zhenya is the only one to have figured out how to break into. Thus he – and she, now – have free run of a big, eerily empty building, giving Cruz Smith scope for some typically atmospheric descriptions.

Eva

Fans of the previous books in the series will be impatient to find out what happened to Dr Eva Kazka, the doctor Arkady hooked up with two novels previously, and who was – shockingly and unexpectedly – seriously wounded in a knife attack in the very last pages of the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

We have to wait until page 70 before she’s even mentioned whereupon we find out, rather disappointingly, that she recovered from her injuries, that their relationship staggered on a bit, and then she left him. She simply declared she didn’t want to wait around for him to be executed by criminals; she didn’t want to be the grieving widow at the graveside. Boom. She’s out of his life. Shame, She was a sparky, recalcitrant element in the novels.

The Nijinsky Fair

At the scene of Olga’s death, Arkady found an invitation to a glitzy, high society charity event called the Nijinsky Fair, so he uses it to go along. He looks woefully out of place, a skinny, lank, badly-dressed cop trying to mingle with super-rich mafia types and skinny supermodels in a huge ballroom festooned with luxury brands, flashing lights, waiters serving champagne cocktails and so on. Arkady catches sight himself in a room full of mirrors.

With so many mirrors reflecting each other, he seemed to share the room with multiple desperate men with lank hair and eyes deep as drains, the sort of figure who might wander the streets on a rainy night and cause people to roll up their car windows and jump the traffic light. (p.126)

Not, in other words, a desperately reassuring presence. To his surprise he bumps into Anya Rudikova, his new neighbour in his apartment building, a rather self-dramatising journalist. She is drinking with Sasha Vaksberg, a characteristically semi-criminal New Russian multi-millionaire who was running a set of casinos among other things, until ‘our friend in the Kremlin’ decided to cut the oligarchs down to size and closed them all down. His casinos include the Peter the Great casino in Three Stations, which we have seen Zhenya making his hideout. Aha. The reader has the familiar sensation of threads and storylines beginning to pull together.

This party is actually a charity event, given by nice Mr Vaksberg to raise money for the very street kids we’ve seen as we follow Maya and Zhenya. It leads up to a big stage show, part of which features ballet dancers, not actually dancing but adopting the numbered postures and positions they use in training. For some reason number 4 is missing, so Vaksberg surprises us all by running down onto the stage and nimbly adopting the posture himself. Laughter from his super-rich audience. More cocktails. Gaiety as a trapeze artist pulls cunning stunts and then there is another tableau, this time of the dwarfs from Snow White. And so the show rambles on while Arkady watches, dazed by all the bling on display.

The trapeze arsonist

Poking around, as is his habit, Arkady finds himself backstage and climbs to the gallery to look down on the stage. Here he finds the trapeze artist who was part of the show, crouched on his almost invisible wire. As Arkady asks him questions, the artist dementedly lights matches for each question and drops them down into the flies below. He could easily start a fire which would cause mayhem in the club, is he mad? Scratch, another match dropped. Arkady makes his excuses and leaves…

Maya the child prostitute

We get an incredibly bleak flashback of Maya’s childhood in some God-forsaken dump miles from Moscow and civilisation, working from as early as she can remember, since before puberty, as a child prostitute in a room decorated as a little girl’s room, all in pink complete with teddy bears.

She remembers all the fat, middle-aged clients who want to fuck Daddy’s little girl but end up on the side of the bed crying. Matti, her Finnish pimp, tells her she’s been sold into prostitution by her parents, presumably to buy more vodka, that noble drink for, as Arkady points out, ‘Four out of every five violent crimes involved vodka’ (p.20).

It is a portrait of a society in complete moral and social collapse.

‘Girls flock to Moscow with romantic ambitions of being models or dancers and Moscow turns them into escorts and whores. We wax them and pluck them and inflate their breasts like balloons. In short, we turn them into freaks of beauty.’ (p.138)

Eventually, Maya becomes pregnant, which causes trouble with the brothel’s owners who make Matti look like Father Christmas. Soon as she’s had the baby, two of the ‘Catchers’, as they’re known, come to visit, intending to take Maya away and make an example of her as they have of previous girls who in any way rebelled – burn her face off with acid or break every bone in her body, that kind of thing. Foolishly, they let her sit in the derelict bus shelter out front of the brothel while they crank up with some of Matti’s vodka.

Unexpectedly, an Army bus is passing from the nearby barracks and to everyone’s surprise stops when Maya sticks her hand out. She quickly boards to the cheers of the soldiers and although the Catchers come running out brandishing pistols, the bus has pulled off and Maya is safe. It drops her at the local train station and she uses all her pitiful savings to buy a train ticket to Moscow. It was on this journey that the kindly old lady stole her baby.

Shootout on the freeway

Back in the present, Vaksberg offers Arkady and Anya a lift home in his huge armour-plated, bullet-proof Mercedes. As it starts to rain, Vaksberg sits snugly inside patting the Adidas bag filled with the takings from the charity event, bitterly complaining how ‘the judo master in the Kremlin’ (p.138) ie Putin, has screwed the oligarchs.

The car drives up onto a stretch of freeway flyover which was never completed and the car stops at the edge of the road, yawning into space as thunder and lightning erupt. Vaksberg gets out to pace under an umbrella and is in mid-rant when the trunk of the Mercedes unexpectedly pops open and a figure opens up with a gun. Vaksberg’s bodyguard fires back and is mown down by sheets of submachine gun bullets, same with the driver, as Vaksberg drops to the floor and Anya hides inside the car. Meanwhile, Arkady grabs the bodyguard’s gun and walks calmly towards the boot and, as the assailant pauses to reload, shoots him dead.

To everyone’s surprise the shooter turns out to be the man who played Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs in the gala show earlier that evening.

Maya in the underground

Maya falls into the unhealthy orbit of a bully boy among the street kids, Yegor, who promises to find her baby for her if she becomes his whore. Zhenya tries to dissuade her but he can’t out-gun Yegor and his gang. Yegor’s mere name inspires terror.

Yegor’s name was a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade. (p.62)

In fact, we now learn how and why the baby was stolen. After leaving the train holding Maya’s baby, Auntie Lenya emerges from the toilets in her true identity of Magdalena, and joins up with the drunken soldier who turns out to be her partner in crime, Vadim. They take the baby back to their flat and then on to an apartment overlooking the Three Stations. Here, in a crappy Soviet-era tower block, lives Colonel Kassim and his wife, who is always nagging him for a baby.

Now Kassim pays off Magdalena and presents his wife with a real baby. But it is crying for its milk and refuses to take formula. After twelve hours of non-stop crying Kassim’s wife is begging him to get rid of the horrible little brat.

He packs it in a box with airholes punched in it, puts it in a carrier bag and sets off through the drizzle to the chaos of Three Stations. On one of the concourses he finds nowhere good to ditch a whimpering baby and is wondering what to do next, when he realises – he’s been robbed. He put the bag down for a second and – it’s gone! Oh well. Job done, he returns to his apartment where his wife resumes her nagging.

The catchers

The two angry Catchers arrive in Moscow in pursuit of the girl who got away. They show people in the Three Stations crowds photos of Maya. One of the people they show is Zhenya, who feigns ignorance but realises Maya is in deadly danger and is wondering how to get word to her, but one of the other street kids has already been shown the photo and immediately told the bad guys Maya is holed up with the street kid, Yegor. Off they go to find her.

Angry Anya

The journalist Anya turns up on Arkady’s doorstep, soaking wet and furious. Arkady left her and Vaksberg at the scene of the shooting waiting for the militia who, of course, stole the Adidas bag with the cash in it and gave them both a grilling. Some friend he turns out to be! Anya sleeps on his sofa, carrying on giving him a hard time until Arkady rather angrily shows her the letter he’s just received from his boss, Zurin.

Arkady has been officially fired for disobeying the clear order not to take part in any further investigations. So he has no influence with the cops any more, that’s why he left the shooting scene, advising Vaksberg to take the credit for shooting the assassin.

Itsy’s gang

Now the novel introduces us to a new set of characters, the barely pubescent members of Itsy’s street gang. Turns out it’s they who stole Colonel Kassim’s bag and are astonished to find it contains a crying baby. The narrative gives us several half-comic descriptions of owners of shops around Three Stations being ‘steamed’ by a gang of children storming through their shop, causing havoc but, when the dust settles, only having lost nappies, wipes and milk formula. Aha. That’ll be Itsy’s gang deciding they are going to raise the baby as their own and stealing the necessary kit.

We get Itsy’s backstory, too. Like Maya’s parents selling her into prostitution and Zhenya’s dad beating him until he became a chess huckster or Arkady’s own dad bullying him until he can strip and rebuild a pistol, Itsy’s childhood was one of unmitigated misery. Her father was a dog breeder, often drunk, who forced Itsy to feed and tend his dogs. One day he went too far and began knocking her about inside the dog pen and the dogs, who had come to think of Itsy as their feeder, savaged him to death. She left for Moscow with the fiercest dog, Tito, and quickly carved out a space in the street gangs.

In the morgue

Inevitably disobeying his boss’s instructions, Arkady accompanies Viktor to the morgue to see Dopey’s body. Stripped bare it is covered with amateur tattoos. Viktor expains to Arkady (and the reader) that Russian criminal tattoos give an elaborate account of the owner’s criminal career. Dopey was no amateur; he was a hard-core professional criminal.

Arkady notices the crop of other corpses on ice in the morgue includes a young man who has committed suicide.

Viktor has been doing some research at Arkady’s suggestion, and found a number of other murdered young women from the past few years, all found without panties, with their dresses hitched up around their waists and their legs arranged in funny postures. In a flash Arkady realises all the murdered women have been posed in the classical postures of ballet training, the ones he saw at the Nijinsky Club!

Ballet dancers

Arkady sets out to interview the inhabitants of the tower block which overlooks the trailer where ‘Olga’ was found. He meets he choreographer of the Nijinsky Club, Madame Isa Spiridona, fascinating survivor from happier times, with her b&w photos of the greats.

With a shock Arkady recognises the photo of her son on the mantelpiece – Roman Spiridon – as the corpse he saw in the morgue. Madame Spiridona explains that she got a message to say he was going on a long trip, passed on to her by his old friend Sergei Borodin. And from another photograph he identifies the trapeze artist behind the scenes at the Nijinsky Club, the one who behaved as if he was mad, as the ‘friend’, Borodin. Could he… have murdered M. Spiridona’s son? Is he the killer?

When Arkady leaves, Madame S lets him take a coffee table book which has taken his fancy, about the great dancer Nijinsky, since ballet seems to be the thing and the club was named after him…

The catchers

Maya is plying her new trade under the supervision of young Yegor. She is in the middle of being screwed by a middle-aged Pakistani trader, Ali, who has broken off to go for a pee, when the two Catchers burst into the seedy hotel room. Ali returns to find them waiting for him. ‘Where’s the girl?’ they ask. They torture him but he doesn’t know. In fact Maya had heard a sound outside, hidden from the Catchers, then slipped into the hall and out while they attack Ali.

She steps over the body of Yegor, who has had his pool cue broken and stuffed down his throat before the Catchers then killed him. For his part, before he dies Ali mentions Zhenya, whose name he’s heard being mentioned by the girl and Yegor. Oops.

Anya attacked

When Maya finds Zhenya and tells him what she saw, Zhenya knows bad trouble is coming and phones Arkady. Our hero picks him and Maya up and bring them back to his apartment, where he interviews the terrified girl, along with trusty (if alcoholic sidekick) Viktor.

Half way through Arkady senses rather than hears something and goes cautiously into the next door apartment, the one recently leased by the pain-in-the-neck journalist, Anya.

He and Viktor discover Anya in a crumpled heap against the wall, no knickers and her skirt pushed up around her waist, her legs posed in ballet posture number 5, blue and not breathing.

Arkady realises she is suffering from anaphylactic shock, having mentioned something about being allergic to milk. He saves her life by finding her EPI pen in her fridge, and injecting her with a full dose in the thigh. Above her body, ‘God is shit’ has been sprayed in big words on the wall.

Anya starts and begins breathing. Soon she is conscious again. Arkady wraps her in blankets, feeds her, settles her on his bed, packs Viktor off to his long-suffering wife and settles down to read the book Madame Spiridona leant him. But it isn’t a book about Nijinsky, it is an edition of his notorious diary, which chronicles his descent into madness, and it falls open at one of his rants.

God is dog, Dog is God, Dog is shit, God is shit, I am shit, I am God. (p.218)

So Arkady realises: he is dealing with a Nijinsky-channeling, ballet-obsessed serial killer.

Itsy’s gang

In a weird scene Itsy takes some of her gang of kids shoplifting leaving the two boys, Leo, Peter and Emma to guard their camp and look after the baby. The two boys immediately sniff air freshener and have a trip. They see a brightly caparisoned Mongol from the Golden Horde approaching, jangling his bridle. In fact it is a street cleaning machine driven by a Tajik (although Muscovites call anyone who comes from one of the central Asian republics a ‘Tajik’, regardless of their ethnic identity).

The driver sees that the boards of several crates near the kids’ base have been broken off to make firewood. What they don’t know is that the crates contain a big consignment of Afghan heroin which is being stored here in the scruffy backstreets before being distributed.

The ‘Tajik’ is not happy at the discovery. He pulls Peter’s head back and is about to slash his throat, when the baby starts crying. Emma, who has seen all this, scuttles to the furthest end of the container, and watches as the ‘Tajik’ approaches the baby’s makeshift cot.

She – and the reader – fear the absolute worst and steel our nerves. But when Emma pokes her head out from cover, the ‘Tajik’ has left, and she discovers the baby alive and kicking, having been given an amulet with Koranic script on it to suck on. Thank God there is some humanity in this God-forsaken wasteland.

Anya apologises

It’s a few days later and Anya is well enough to be up and doing her part time charity work, distributing condoms to the street children. We see her being hassled by the militia who try to blackmail out of her box till they realise what’s in it. Back in the apartment block she knocks on Arkady’s door to thank him and apologise again. She has found out from contacts that Vaksberg is virtually bankrupt and has been creaming the money from his own charities. The whole incident with Dopey was staged by him. Dopey was meant to steal the bag of cash and make off, later giving it to Vaksberg (minus a fee) but he got carried away with the gun and sparked a bloodbath.

Anya carefully establishes that Eva has definitely left, and that Arkady is definitely a single man – before abruptly consenting to have sex with him. Arkady isn’t complaining.

The catchers

Itsy returns from the shoplifting trip and Emma tells her what happened with the ‘Tajik’. Itsy realises they have to leave this base. She hussles her gang into packing up and moving out, whipping them on ahead of her, but Peter and Leo are lagging behind. When she goes back to find them, she discovers they have both been shot dead by the Catchers, their little bodies lying in the mechanics trench next to the trailer.

Then Itsy herself is shot dead by Ilya, one of the Catchers. He crouches over her body and is not at all expecting Tito the wolf to attack him, knocking him onto the trench and, while his partner tries to get a clear shot, ripping open his carotid artery so he is dead in seconds. Tito then bounds out of the trench to kill the second Catcher, but he empties his magazine into the beast which falls dead.

Christ, he thinks, what a mess. How is he going to move his partner’s body? Then he realises there’s a laser red mark on his own body, and he himself is shot by the ‘Tajik’. Carnage.

Sergei Borodin

Arkady is fairly sure the trapeze artist, Sergei Borodin, is the killer so he rings him, and implies he has the evidence to convict him, and invites him to his apartment for a chat. Then Arkady sets up two separate tape recorders to capture everything.

Eerily, Sergei is accompanied by his mother, who clearly dominates and dictates his life (distant echoes of Norman Bates in Psycho). Realising he really thinks he is Nijinsky reincarnated, Arkady plays on his delusions and extracts a spectacular confession from Borodin. All helped when he stage manages for the supposedly dead Anya to enter Arkady’s kitchen dressed in the nightgown she was wearing when Sergei tried to murder her, at just the right psychological moment. Confronted by a ghost, Borodin screams his confession.

Sasha at the races

Arkady visits Vaksberg at a racetrack outside Moscow where the millionaire is hosting a bizarre party. When Arkady had left the scene of the shooting of Dopey, he had told Anya and Sasha to omit mention of his presence and claim that it was Sasha who foiled a daring attack on a respectable businessman.

This has had the unexpected consequence of turning Vaksberg into a popular hero and, even more improbably, he has been rehabilitated with the Kremlin, had his passport returned, and his ability to do business restored.

Hence he is getting back into the swing of things with a new business venture. Although the stands at the racecourse are empty, the loudspeakers blare out the sounds of cheering crowds, as the relatively small number of VIP guests quaff champagne and let them be persuaded by Sasha to get involved in his next enterprise, buying and breeding elite racehorses.

This isn’t the first time Arkady sees Moscow’s hyper-rich in action and each time it gets harder to bear.

On his mobile Arkady gets a call from Viktor identifying Dopey as a regular at the racetrack, Pavel Petrovich Maksimov. Without even being questioned, Sasha suavely admits to Arkady that the dwarf attack was staged, and confirms Anya’s story that, yes, he was, at that point, skimming money from his own charities. But now everything has turned out well – ‘more champagne, detective?’

Madame Furtseva

In his questioning of characters in the apartment block overlooking Three Stations Arkady had met Madame Furtseva, a world famous photographer, her rooms adorned with b&w photos of the mid-century greats, Hemingway, Malraux etc. Out of nowhere, she appears next to the startled Emma in one of the alleyways around the Square, and offers to take her in.

Old and infirm, Madame Furtseva explains that, although she can barely move nowadays, still she likes to spend her time staring out the window, observing the human wildlife prowling around the waterholes of the Three Stations. She has seen a lot of Emma’s story play out and offers to protect her and the baby.

Car chase with Sergei

To his astonishment Arkady’s solid gold confession from Sergei Borodin is rejected by Arkady’s vindictive boss, Zurin, because it was obtained while Arkady was not technically employed as an investigator. Borodin is released from custody to kill again.

Driving back from police headquarters in Viktor’s knackered Lada, Arkady finds himself terrorised by a shining black Hummer. There is a high tension car chase around the snowy, midnight-black streets of Moscow and when the Hummer draws level the automatic window slips slickly down and Sergei points a pistol at Arkady’s head, smiling like the psycho he is.

But all the time Arkady has been driving towards his own rundown neighbourhood, and in particular towards the pothole which has been causing him grief intermittently throughout the novel and which we have observed various squads of unhappy workman trying and failing to fill.

Now, as Sergei goes to pull the trigger, the Hummer hits the big pothole at 150 kph, upending into it so that Borodin mother and son go flying through the windscreen at speed. End of the Borodins.

The final catcher

In a final sequence the sort-of family of Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya take a break at his father the General’s old dacha out in the country by a lake.

But – with wild improbability – Arkady has been ‘befriended’ by the second of the Catchers. Turns out he wasn’t shot dead by the ‘Tajik’ as we thought, just shot through the shoulder.

Now recovered, the Catcher makes efforts to adopt an (implausible) disguise, pretending to be a bookish intellectual who bumps into Arkady at libraries. He follows the ‘family’ to Arkady’s dacha and makes elaborate plans to swim across the lake in a wetsuit, emerge silently and kill them all in their beds.

Instead, as he emerges slickly from the black water, Arkady who had long ago rumbled his disguise, is waiting, and cuts him open from sternum to balls, then watches him writhe and die in the lake water, in clouds of his own blood.

This whole sequence feels like it comes from a different novel, even a different type of novel, a more straightforward action hero novel.

Maya’s baby returned

And in another scene which doesn’t quite match the tone of the book, the reader is surprised to encounter a fairy tale happy ending.

Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya put on a little carnival in one of the squares around Three Stations, hiring a number of child-friendly acts, balloons and entertainers, jugglers and fire eaters.

Lured from her hideyhole up in the veteran photographer’s apartment, Emma wanders open-eyed among the marvels and, when Arkady asks her to, very gently hands little baby Katya back to her mother, Maya.

Against all probability, plausibility or reason, this made me burst into tears. Thank God that something good and innocent and pure is capable of coming out of the moral, physical, spiritual, economic and cultural desolation which is modern Russia.

Comment

Three Stations is the shortest of the Renko novels and feels like a chamber symphony, with all the same instruments and elements, but on a more domestic scale, based on tighter, tauter, more integrated plotlines and themes – especially the locale of Three Stations with its hookers, street kids and street crime.

The waiting hall at Kazansky station put Zhenya in mind of the nocturnal habitat at the zoo, a place where things stirred indistinctly and species were difficult to identify. (p.41)

Russia is depicted as a lost, doomed civilisation. Is it really as woeful, as impoverished, violent and corrupt as depicted in these novels? Are there really so many Russian prostitutes in Italy that the new slang word for prostitute is ‘Natasha’? (p.18)

Mind you, in 2009 when this novel was being written, the entire global financial system was nearly brought to its knees by clever bankers in London and New York, and Cruz Smith makes the point that, in many ways, we in the West are no better, having the New Russian billionaire crook Vaksberg drily comment:

‘A year ago we had over a hundred billionaires in Moscow. Today there are less than thirty. So it’s the best of times, the worst of times and sometimes it’s just the shits. It turns out we don’t know how to run capitalism. That’s to be expected. As it happens, nobody knows how to run capitalism. That was a bad surprise. Cigarette?’ (p.97)

Maybe because it’s shorter and tauter, there were fewer really breath-taking turns of phrase in this novel than in its predecessors, though there are still some crackers:

The Lada’s exhaust pipe and muffler hung low and occasionally dragged a rooster tail of sparks. (p.8)

He tried to sleep but his anger was a match struck before a mirror and he saw what a fool he’d been. (p.160)

As a footnote, I annotated for the first time something I’ve noticed in the past few Cruz Smith novels, a particular verbal formula which helps express Arkady’s sense of whatevere-ness, a kind of verbal shrug of the shoulders: his or the narrator’s habit of saying or thinking that, if something is not x, then what is?

The director of the children’s shelter that Zhenya originally came from claimed that the boy and Arkady had a special relationship. Zhenya’s father had shot Arkady. If that wasn’t special, what was? (p.9)

‘A healthy young woman was dead. If that doesn’t make you suspicious, what does?’ (p.89)

I like it. I like pretty much everything about these wonderful books.


Credit

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Mantle in 2011. All quotes and references to the 2011 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

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