It’s a leap to imagine that any reader of this blog is a truly shameless banker capitalist, content to make money without considering any social consequences, without giving a shit about those who might get hurt, without caring for anything other than the Main Chance. Such people wouldn’t take the time to read mundanities like novels, for one thing.
But those shameless capitalists sure are interesting for us mortals to think about.
A dozen years ago, in the 2000s, the Oughts, Moscow was the place to be if you were one of those Main Chancers. Russia was prying itself open to the darker parts of western capitalism, to that verminous, sub-corporate breed of international banks we’ve come to know so well in the last few years here in the US. Here, we tend to think that those shitheads can buy the kind of government they want, one somewhere between lax and nonexistent except when it comes to protecting their profits from taxes.
Snowdrops, A.D. Miller’s novel, tells a slightly different story about Russia. He was Moscow correspondent for the Economist during the oughts and saw the real differences. His novel takes Nick Platt, one chump of a British banker, pudgy, socially not at all ept, generally a wanker (yes, there’s got to be a reason for that particular rhyme), and stings him. Once, at least.
Snowdrops follows Platt’s slow fall from whatever small sense of grace he might have had when he arrived in Moscow to work for a British bank. In a country where everything is for sale, nothing is sacred, and Nick’s heart is the least of anyone’s worries. Too bad that he falls for one of the two young women he encounters one day. Too bad that they gradually ensnare him in their schemes.
Nick Platt reminds me of the hapless Morgan Leafy in William Boyd’s lovely A Good Man in Africa (the book, not the movie, though that’s good, too, especially the luscious Diana Rigg).
Morgan Leafy is a foil for everything that can go wrong. In a curious way, Leafy is from a different, more entrepreneurial age, despite being not a banker but a British diplomat in a miserable African country stuck sometime in the 1960s. He might be very fond of drink and women but he at least attempts to achieve real professional recognition. Nick Platt on the other hand has no real ambition. He’s just anxious not to be another loser from suburban London. So anxious, in fact, that he inevitably confirms his loser status, time and again.
I’ll leave it to you to see the intricate simplicity of the sting. It takes six months or so, but once it’s complete and he’s both in love and out $25,000, he’s useless to the women. They disappear – and he’s become so worn out by the Russia he’s encountering that he hardly even bothers to follow through, to pursue. When he finally gets to it, he asks why they chose him as their target. They casually tell him that if it hadn’t been him, well, it would have been someone else. It was just the way he looked at them one day in the street.
I say that Nick Platt reminds me of Morgan Leafy, but reminds me means it’s rather to A.D. Miller’s loss since Boyd is an accomplished novelist while Miller is still a journalist with a clever plot. (Part of which, I happily note, is that I really do like one final lingering uncertainty of Snowdrops; whether or not the two young women managed to sting someone else as well.) Worth reading, indeed, but now I’m reminded to re-read Good Man in Africa.
But, really, there’s another wonderful sting you shouldn’t forget. It’s the Newman / Redford movie from 1973. A few minutes with IMDB will point out some of the strange failings of the movie’s continuity and authenticity, but it doesn’t matter at all. Seeing The Sting again 40 years later (insert age-related scream here) reminds me just how clever the sting is. Or stings. Now I think of it, there are perhaps four, plus a nice wallet snatch or two.
Perhaps Snowdrops is truly post-modern, in that our chum seems to know he’s being stung all along. Newman’s character in The Sting, Henry Gondorf, sees it differently. He says of Doyle Lonnegan, the man they’re about to sting, “you have to keep this con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.” Better that way, perhaps.