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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Night Watch

Re-read October 2013
★ ★ ★ ★ 

I can’t get over the suspicion I’m reading this in the wrong language.


Simple, really. I am—I’m reading it in English.


The philosophy of language makes me dizzy; the chicken-egg relationship between cognition and verbal expression means that something is likely lost in translation the more sophisticated or fantastical a thought becomes. Even simple phrases have deeper meaning. Take the concept “I have to walk the dog.” Not too hard, is it? Except in translating, do you use the pronoun “I” or is it implied in the verb? If you leave the ‘I’ out, are you implying something about importance of self? What about ‘walk’ and ‘dog?’ In English, ‘walk’ tends to imply a more leisurely pace. In America, there is often an implication of economics and social status. You have a dog. You have free time to walk it. Money to feed it.  You have a safe place to walk. What’s the equivalent expression of leisure and obligation? Is the ‘have to’ an ethical obligation or a social one? Declaring or implying? Something more is contained in every word chosen–a hint of characterization, a whiff of judgement, an implication.


As I said, dizzy.


I liked The Night Watch. And yet I felt I missed some of the details, the emotional impact of the whole.  The concepts are deceptively simple. Balance. Sacrifice of the few for the many. Sacrifice of the personal for the larger goal.  The bureaucrat forced into action. Love.

Told in a triptych structure, it follows the story of Anton, agent of the Night Watch in the war between the Light Ones and the Dark Ones. Discovering one’s potential to walk in the Twilight, the unseen world around us, obligates a person to choose a side. With choosing and training comes other magical skills. Dark Ones explore freedom at the expense of others. Light Ones work for others.


‘Story One: Destiny.’ Anton, former computer jockey, is tasked with tracking vampires who are poaching in Moscow without a license. The Night Watch, the police force of the Light, is monitoring and enforcing the treaty of neutrality between the Light and the Dark.  As Anton rides the trains listening to music, he runs into a young woman with a powerful curse hanging over her head. He uses his magic amulet, but it is unable to disperse it more than a minute or two. Unfortunately, he notes the vampire luring in a young boy nearby, so he has to disengage from saving the woman to complete his mission. Anton is a little unsuited to his task; his main role has been as programmer, not field agent. In fact, he lives next to a family of (legal) vampires, and is prone to drawing comparisons between his friends and the vampire he is supposed to kill.


The language of the translation is deceptively straightforward, except for the mind-stutter of the ‘Night Watch’ being the arm of Light, and the ‘Day Watch’ being the arm of Dark. It was almost as if those terms were too simple for their use. Occasionally, I’d hit a lovely little turn of phrase:


“That’s how myths are born. Out of our carelessness, out of our tattered nerves, out of jokes that go wrong and flashy gestures.”


“Generally speaking, we can and should say everything.  We just have to choose the right time, otherwise the truth can be worse than a lie.”


For an everyman mythos, characterization is well done. There’s an interruption in the narrative when the young teen Egor is given a viewpoint, and Lukyanenko manages to capture young, confused and defiant in a nice mix. I found the scene were the narrator approaches Egor to be equally well done–American urban fantasy especially wants to believe in the romance, when in fact, fright, doubt and suspicion are equally likely responses. I loved the idea that words/intentions/feelings could result in curses, which could attach to a person and cause temporary bad luck.


There were, perhaps, particularly Russian moments and conceptions:


“They showed me out in total silence, without any unnecessary words, without any shoulder-slapping or helpful advice. After all, what I was doing wasn’t such a big deal. I was only on my way to die.”


That one struck me, the resignation, the acceptance, the futility and the neutral reaction of his team. ‘Yes,’ they seem to say. ‘We all do. This is only your turn.’


‘Story Two: Among His Own Kind’ is a more challenging piece. An unknown magician is killing low-level agents of the Dark Ones without a trace, with only a rip in the clothes for evidence. Is it a rogue Light Agent? Both sides are interested in finding the killer, either to recruit or to retaliate. Anton is suspected, and he and Olga switch bodies as a way of hiding Anton from the Dark. Anton finds his commitment to the Light tested.


‘Story Three: All for My Own Kind’ starts more hopefully with the Night Watch heading on a three day vacation. I liked the view of leisure it presented, a small glimpse into Russian culture with resources to vacation in the country. Characterization here is particularly well done, with a nice air of both comedy and melancholy. Anton is roused for defense and embarks on his most complicated journey yet. It ends satisfactorily.


“Maybe it’s because we’ve lost something, Anton… The ability not just to defend people, but to bring them joy? What good are secure walls, if they’re the walls of a prison? Humans have forgotten about genuine magic, they don’t believe in the Dark, but they don’t believe in the Light either!”


Another Russian moment:

“‘It’s okay to get drunk, Anton. If you really need to. Only you have to get drunk on vodka. Cognac and wine–that’s all for the heart.’  

‘So what’s vodka for?’      

‘For the soul. If it’s hurting real bad.’”


It all feels very metaphorical, all very Cold-War-esque, Russian stoicism, philosophical debate of freedom. Still, it’s couched in a good story. The second time through, I had greater understanding of the mechanics of the complicated plots. I have the feeling that if I knew more about Russian culture, or was reading it in Russian, that I’d have a greater appreciation for its intricate plot and philosophical underpinnings.


“‘Why am I still asking these questions?’

‘You’ll never stop asking them. Out loud at first, and later on just to yourself. It will never stop, never. If you wanted to be free of painful questions, you chose the wrong side.’

‘I chose the one I wanted’

‘I know. So now put up with it.’

‘All my life?’

‘Yes. It will be a long one, but you’ll never get over this. You’ll never stop asking yourself if every step you make is the right one.’”