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Friday, 5 August 2011

If I'm right there will be more written about the case of Mazoltuv Borukhova, the woman sentenced in 2009 for paying for the murder of Daniel Malakov, her husband. If only because of the "disquiet" The Guardian's Rachel Cooke estimates as one of the rewards available to the careful reader of Janet Malcolm's latest essay Iphigenia in Forest Hills. Like Malcolm's other books - or at least the two others I've read - the book has an evanescent quality like a watercolour painting. But the heavy message contained in her famous The Journalist and the Murderer is absent here. Partly, it's due to the stark fact that the author had no access to any of the principal players. Malcolm observes in the courtroom, chats with the lawyers, approaches members of the family (and eventually gains access to the homes of members of the dead father's family), and fraternises with the other reporters in the courtroom. But she only ever passes by Michelle, the daughter who could likely be deprived forever of the care and company of her incarcerated mother - and whose father had already been buried.

This lack of access is not unusual in books of the genre. Australia's own Helen Garner has written books comprised entirely of renditions of interactions with secondary players when the principals were accused of crimes and had to face court - journalists are generally relegated to a low place on the chain when it comes to giving access to suspects. 

And in Malcolm's case, too, the author enters the drama as an actor. This is entirely suitable where personal, subjective assessments are critical to an appreciation of the hidden reality behind the words spoken by prosecution, judge and defence. Cooke says that Borukhova hired Mikhail Mallayev to shoot Daniel like it's a fact but Malcolm's detailed and dense recount of the facts of the case dare us to claim that we are certain of the truth of the matter. Dense. It's a book with the specific gravity of the heaviest elements on the literary periodic table, replete with names, events, legal facts, claims and counterclaims. It's a tangled skein of flowing aspersions that get thicker and more unpalatable as the book draws to a close and we find ourselves in the homes of people on Daniel's side of the family.

Michelle, as Cooke says, is Iphigenia; a character out of one of the oldest books available to us, Iphigenia was murdered and then her death was avenged by the mother on the father who killed her. In Malcolm's book the taint of child abuse hovers sickeningly over the spaces inhabited by the narrative like some ghoul in a film about sorcerors and magic wands, always prompt to fly away whenever someone is asked an unpleasant question. The hatred shared by Daniel's relatives is dismally abhorrent and gives the reader no comfort when it is laid in the balance with Michelle's true best interests: it's clear the girl still loves her mother. Whether Daniel molested her is one of those facts that is liable to reemerege in the appeals court and run shrieking around the courtroom laying curses on all the houses the guilty inhabit.

I read this book in a little over one sitting and reckon that it does an incredibly efficient job in a very small space. But then all Malcolm's books are diminutive, unlike her talent.

1 comment:

Keren Lavelle said...

I read this one a few weeks ago too Matt (whoops must take it back to library). Not Janet Malcolm's strongest work, but beautifully written. Her contempt for the failings of the court system - especially for children- is clear. The case is going to appeal, so no doubt we will hear more about it.