Thoughts: Time of the Octopus, by Anatoly Kucherena, translated by John Farndon with Akbota Sultanbekova and Olga Nakston

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

– The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

Never have I wanted a book to be narrated by Holden Caulfield more than this one.

If you’ve been in pretty much any chat with me or follow me on social media then you may have worked out that this book is objectively terrible.

Really, it isn’t just my opinion that it’s the worst book I’ve read since Foxcatcher, or the most frustrating translation since Basti. It really is those things in reality.

Snip for length, we’re not bothering about spoilers here, you probably shouldn’t read this book!

Firstly, this ebook is over £7 on Kindle, which isn’t usually something that bothers me (I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I don’t have to worry about book prices so I am willing to pay relatively high prices to support the industry etc etc) but given the quality of this one, it does bother me a lot. The film rights to this book allegedly sold to Oliver Stone for one million dollars, which is insane to me, and they do not need to be fleecing people like this for “the inspiration for the film Snowden”. Two books are listed under “based on”, and believe me, the only one you need is The Snowden Files. Trust me, I’m looking out for you here.

OK, let’s dive in. I’m going to open with some quick yikeses that we can get out of the way:

  • Mention of “half-autist” in a way that is no. Don’t do that.
  • Incredible conspiracy theory nutjob transphobia related to Chelsea Manning – sorry I mean the entirely fictional Banning – which made me so uncomfortable I couldn’t even share it with friends to point at and go LOOK AT THIS NONSENSE. I don’t know if this is what Kucherena thinks, if he just thought it would be fun fiction or if this was to get around Russia’s anti-LGBT laws. Either way, it is appalling. Also Manning/Banning is consistently misgendered (we never get a first name).
  • Everything to do with any woman.
  • Everything to do with any non-white character. In a horrible, morbid way it’s kind of interesting to see a middle-aged Russian white guy’s idea of a youngish white American man’s view of race in the US, but it’s also depressing and terrible. It falls into terrible stereotypes and a lot of insulting nonsense. At one point our protagonist goes to South Africa and I was just gobsmacked.

So that’s the unpleasant stuff. Let’s move on to the merely bad.

Time of the Octopus is structured in such a way that we follow a character called The Lawyer through Sheremetyevo airport, through gathering journalists, to a secret bunker hidden therein, in which an American is waiting under the threat of extradition. The American then proceeds to tell the Lawyer his entire life story.

If you were paying attention during the Snowden affair of 2013 then you will know pretty much where you stand. Indeed, if you read The Snowden Files, you will be able to follow a lot of very specific events from that book here. If you weren’t, or were unaware of the book’s links to those events, you are shit out of luck, because Kucherena never really comes out and makes clear what has happened or is happening. He seems to steal actual speeches from American politicians that were given on that night, but he plays weirdly coy about the actual details of what Snowden has done.

Okay, yeah, he’s not called Snowden. Kucherena has cleverly disguised him as Joshua Kold, fighting the Brism (Prism) and Tembora (Tempora) programs, following in the footsteps of Cassandzhi (Assange), the founder of Mikiliks (Wikileaks) and Banning (Manning), helped in his whistleblowing by Greyvold ([Glenn] Greenwald) and Boytras ([Laura] Poitras).

No, I’m not joking.

Kucherena falls into this very odd position of being both incredibly transparent (he even namedrops some of Poitras’s films with titles unchanged) and totally opaque – Kold never really comes out and says what he’s done, the identity and role of Cassandzhi* is never explained at all, many of Kold’s life events are clearly (hopefully) Kucherena’s fevered fantasies of a vaguely timeless American white boyhood. I saw a review that expressed concern over some of the things about Snowden that were revealed, which is very concerning, and hints that while making up weird sex stuff Kucherena has not clearly enough dissociated this character from the real-life Snowden. Not a great position for a lawyer.

Nor is the amount of padding in the book, often wholesale lifts of famous speeches (the recital of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is particularly egregious in about fifty different ways) and snippets of books from Orwell to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. None of this is credited. Who knows, maybe it’s all fair use.

There’s some sneaky Russia-fluffing near the end too, as Kold realises that actually he’s landed in the greatest possible place and only Russia can save the world etc. But whatever, I have no particular beef here. You do you. This book is not going to be overturning the West.

The padding is bad in other ways as well. Joshua Kold is meant to be telling the Lawyer his life story, unrehearsed and spontaneously. I don’t care how eidetic we’re expected to believe his memory is (and he never says it is eidetic), we cannot accept that he would be able to recite two versions of the Guy Fawkes rhyme in their multi-stanza glory, plus the I Have a Dream speech, plus chunks of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, plus the exact paragraphs of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm he came across when flipping through them for the very first time, plus the Declaration of Independence, plus the list of European stereotypes Kucherena found in a chain email, plus a load of random jokes about computer engineers, plus the exact dialogue of everyone he ever met. And not just that, but everyone he ever met could similarly recite blocks of text, and Kold dutifully recites those in turn. This is bad writing.

The pacing makes no sense either. It’s written in chapters, which usually begin with the Lawyer saying something about Kold’s story so far, or a phone call coming through, or watching someone give a speech on the news that is written out in full, and these are named by time. There are also sections within those that seem to span chapters and conform to no logical system, called “0001.wav” and similar, because this is being recorded by the Lawyer. They don’t fall at natural pauses, they aren’t formatted as breaks, I just don’t know why these two systems are both here.

The pacing is worse though, in that instead of saying anything even remotely relevant to his case (literally playing out on international news in real time) he tells his entire life story, from childhood anecdotes and his opinions of his family (he isn’t sure why his mother is so quiet, as the quality of brevity is “rare in women”) through to a sadistic high school teacher who explained torture methods to punish students, through to when Kold learned for the first time that Native Americans weren’t the baddies (we also get a detour on the history of scalping because why not), and how he learned that war was bad or the Japanese won WW2 for the US or something from a snowball fight in which he and his father recreated the invasion of Palau (we get the entire history of this too), to when he starts community college and meets his G-Man, some guy he calls the Baseball player for a reason I can’t remember, who works for the NSA.

The G-Man keeps showing up in a way that presumably only happens in films, somewhere between a guardian angel (“Oh Josh my boy, we had to let you join that art collective in community college so you would get a taste of bohemia and become disillusioned with it!”) and some sinister stalker who keeps showing up personally at his hospital bed when he breaks his legs during basic training for the army (later he will see his exact group of recruits on TV beating up old Iraqi women and recognise them through all their gear because I don’t know, it has to be them and the whole of recent American history has played out purely to guide Kold down his path to whistleblowing).

The whole thing feels almost paint by numbers. Kold goes through his idealist phase and his rebellious phase and his patriotic phase and his disillusioned phase by turns, being weird about women all the way. He gets involved with a woman in the college art collective whose breasts he licks drug-laced whipped cream off in an initiation ritual and then gets the hump when she sleeps with other people as casually as she slept with him (later he will meet her again, go to her house and take Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in a convenient single volume as a souvenir, which will shape him forever). He gets utterly weird about the nurse after his basic training accident, who has done literally nothing to deserve any of his creepy thoughts and fantasies. He meets a sexy Hawaiian masseuse who’s also a gymnast and he uses as his cover girlfriend. It’s just. Ugh.

Another thing is a neat little exercise in showing vs telling. Show vs tell is a confusing tenet of writing, and many people, especially those near the beginning of their journey, find it hard to get their heads around. But never fear! Time of the Octopus is here to show and tell you how it works.

So. Kold tells us repeatedly that he’s not religious, but consistently uses phrases about things being in God’s hands or decided by God. This is beyond things like “god knows” or “for god’s sake”; this is very much placing his fate in the hands of the Christian God, in words, over and over. This is attributing the inherent nature of things to the whims of the Christian God. Does he sound unreligious?

He tells us over and over that he doesn’t drink, but drinks whisky in the bunker, knocks back an entire bottle of curacao, drinks over and over. He claims that he can’t stand the taste of alcohol so the only thing he can drink is a martini. A martini. Just two spirits mixed together. Truly the teetotaller’s tipple of choice.

And that, my confused young writer friends, is what they mean by telling vs showing. You can tell the reader anything you want. Telling the reader is easy. But you have to make them believe it.

Not everything is Kucherena’s fault, however. The translators have quite blithely added to the badness of this book with the most basic of translation sins, including inconsistent spellings of people’s names and various proper nouns/book-specific terminology, sometimes in the same paragraph. Joshua Kold’s voice is also hilariously inconsistent. Joshua Kold, you remember, is meant to be American and in an English language book (one minute he’s saying “My dear Mrs Neolani”, the next he’s talking about being “made up” about something, mate, in the Northern English sense of the phrase, the next he’s going on about various shit-ass bullshit turbo-American whatever). At least once they leave in Russian slang specifically in his dialogue, and then just explain it in brackets, so it looks like American Joshua Kold is telling the Russian Lawyer what the Russian slang “metal workers” means. They also tell us (or Kold tells us/the Lawyer?) that sauerkraut is sour cabbage. In case no one has heard of sauerkraut.

Do they ever explain what it means to be cut under the cobbles, or have eyes as red as an April rabbit’s, or where the dog can be found, or where the shoe pinches, or any of the numerous Russian idioms they didn’t bother to find English equivalents for? They do not, dear reader, they do not.

There was a review that said it was clear that English wasn’t Kucherena’s first language, to which I could only screech in despair. It’s not Kucherena who has a problem with English, it’s his English translators.

(For more on localisation in this book, see this little Twitter thread I made for fun and frustration.)

This book is nigh unreadable. It is badly written and ineptly translated, and you should read The Snowden Files instead, because all of the pertinent events of this book are contained therein, and explained and sourced and altogether much more compelling than this “political thriller”.

*I spent most of the book thinking Cassandzhi was either a journalist, a woman or a publication. His connection to Mikiliks is never established, and I spent most of the book thinking Mikiliks was some kind of Russian undercover police department or political bureau.

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