The Cleansing Flames is the fourth novel I’ve written featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator I took from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment. I originally pitched a series of four stories to my publisher, so this novel takes me to the end of my plan.
Each novel is set in a different season, which was a simple device I decided on to allow me to make the books feel distinct from one another. The season in The Cleansing Flames is spring. It seems appropriate to the revolutionary theme. Each novel also draws its inspiration from a different Dostoevsky novel. A Gentle Axe was inspired by Crime and Punishment; A Vengeful Longing by Notes from the Underground; A Razor Wrapped in Silk by The Idiot. The inspiration for The Cleansing Flames was The Devils, Dostoevsky’s tale of murder in an anarchist cell.
I think it’s true to say that it was the one which I was most looking forward to tackling, as I love the feverish atmosphere of the original book, and I was hoping in some way to be able to channel that.
The story takes place in St Petersburg in 1872. The rivers and canals of St Petersburg are thawing. Life returns to the city after the long Russian winter. But this being a murder story, death comes too. As the ice breaks apart, a body comes to the surface.
The previous year, 1871, had seen violent revolution in Paris, with fighting across barricades and the Paris Commune taking charge of the city. Indeed, one of the characters in my novel took part in that action and has come to St Petersburg full of revolutionary fervour.
It’s interesting to look at events unfolding currently in the Middle East and North Africa, and to see how the idea of revolution can take hold and spread. We can also see how the argument of maintaining stability is used as a justification for oppression, for depriving people of their political freedom and civil rights.
It was telling, I think, to see Mubarek clinging onto power. His attitude to the people of Egypt was very paternalistic. It seemed that he was treating them like children. I think the tsar’s attitude to the Russian people was probably similar. He would have seen himself as the great benefactor – the father of his nation.
The fact is though that the majority of people were excluded from political life – including women, of course. And there were women who were key figures in the revolutionary movement, which is something that I touch upon in the novel. In my research, I drew on books such as “Five Sisters: Women against the Tsar”, the memoirs of five young anarchist women of the 1870s; and also “Angel of Vengeance”, Ana Siljak’s account of Vera Zasulich, the “Girl Assassin” of the Governor of St Petersburg.
The tsar at the time of the novel is Alexander the Second. About a decade previously he had brought in a series of wide-ranging reforms, including the liberation of Russia’s serfs. This was his attempt to win over liberal and radical opponents to the tsarist regime, in the hope of averting a revolution in Russia.
As far as the radicals of the time were concerned, he just didn’t go far enough. We can see this because people started trying to kill him. The first of several attempts on the tsar’s life took place in 1866 – before he was successfully assassinated in 1881. As you can imagine, this would provoke a security clampdown, a backlash. And I think also a feeling in him of bewilderment and a sense that people were ungrateful and didn’t appreciate all that he’d done for them.
Alexander thought he’d given his people what they wanted and what happened? They took pot shots at him. So he withdrew. His private life absorbed him. He fell in love with a new mistress, who in the year of my novel gives birth to an illegitimate son.
So the novel is set against this background. It’s to do with pre-revolutionary nihilists, operating in a period of repression and fear. What was interesting for me was that the character of Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky takes a much more central role than in previous books. There’s a real sense that it’s his time now, that Porfiry is part of the previous generation of “superfluous men”. Actually, The Superfluous Man was my original title for the book – it referred both to the murder victim and to the detective. I slightly regret having lost it but maybe my publisher is right. Who knows?
Cleansing Flames is published by Faber