The first thing I must clear up is the relationship between Andrei Gulyashki’s books The Zakhov Mission and Avakoum Zahov versus 07. They are two different books. The original Russian version of The Zakhov Mission was written in 1963. Later it was translated into English by Maurice Michael and released in the United Kingdom in 1968 by Cassel Books (as pictured). It was also published in the United Stated for the Crime Club by Doubleday in 1969. If you search the internet you can find copies of The Zakhov Mission varying in price from around ten dollars to one-hundred and fifty dollars. Avakoum Zahov versus 07 on the other hand was written in 1966, and the only English language translation was published in Australia by Scripts in 1967 and is incredibly difficult to find.
It is often erroneously assumed that The Zakhov Mission is the English translation of ‘Avakoum Zahov versus 07’. Much of the misinformation can be attributed to Donald McCormick’s book Who’s Who in Spy Fiction (1977) which suggests The Zakhov Mission was serialised as Avakoum Zahov versus 07 in Komsomolskaya Pravda. Charles Helfenstein was the first to attempt to clear up some of the confusion about Gulyashki and Zahov in the debut issue of his fan magazine, Spies: The Secret Agent’s Magazine in 1992. In issue 2 (Oct 92) he even reprinted a 67 interview with Gulyashki, complete with a picture of him.
The Zakhov Mission begins with an attack on a sentry in the village of Momchilovo. He was guarding the geological survey headquarters for the area. Stolen from the headquarters was a map with vital military information on it. it seems the survey has found a deposit of a rare ore called leninite, which has military purposes. After fingerprints, a towel (with chloroform on it) and a cigarette butt are found at the scene of the crime, the local schoolmaster, Metodi Parashkevov is arrested.
Avakoum Zakhov is called into investigate and immediately suspects that the Parashkevov is innocent, and the clues have been conveniently planted at the scene of the crime to implicate the schoolmaster. Zakhov decides to go undercover in the town to find out who the real culprit is.
Avakum Zakhov is not particularly a man of action. And although he is often referred to as a Balkan James Bond, he is in fact, more akin to Sherlock Holmes, and uses his deductive powers to solve the mysteries, rather than brute force. He is also keen to adopt a series of silly disguises over the course of his mission. Of course, Holmes was not adverse to a touch of theatricality.
The book itself is slow and plodding, with very little action, with the drama in the story coming solely from the investigative actions of Zakhov – and even they are deliberately cryptic to keep the reader wondering who and what is going on. To continue with the Holmes comparison however, if this story had been written by Conan Doyle, it would have been half the length, still hit the same high-points that this story does – but been pacier and more enjoyable.
One of my criticisms of Avakoum Zahov versus 07 was the use of flowery language – and I opined that Gulyashki could not possibly be such a bad of a writer – and The Zakhov Mission bears that out. There still is a lot of descriptive writing, but it is not flowery, but rather melancholy – in the sense it longs for the days and ways of the past. It is fair to say that this translation by Maurice Michael is far superior to the Scripts translation for 07. Gulyashki, in The Zakhov Mission spends a lot of time describing the old ways, and the simple life. For example, as Zakhov arrives at Momchilovo he has a choice of two restaurants to dine at. Gulyashki spends two pages explaining that one is slick and modern – but cold and emotionless, and the other is old and rundown, but is populated by the honest, hard-working ‘real’ people, and therefore the preferred option. The whole story is filled with this type of promotion for decent values and the simple way of life. Therefore a cynic – and far be it from me to be one – may suggest that this story is little more than a propaganda piece for the masses behind the iron curtain, extolling the virtues of a simple life, and not craving the capitalistic luxuries that may be found in the west.
Ultimately The Zakhov Mission is an interesting curio – in that it is a spy novel from the other side of the iron curtain, but as a thriller, it falls flat. Unless you are particularly interested in Gulyashki or the Zakhov character, I wouldn’t go hunting this book down.