Actes Sud, France
The Retoucher is a cunningly designed thriller with a mysterious plot that keeps the reader in suspense right up to the end. The novel, which has sold 260,000 copies in Russia, is going to be filmed soon.
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Strange things take place in the life of the successful Moscow photographer Heinrich Müller. A number of people whose photographs he has retouched die under mysterious circumstances. Heinrich has the feeling that these deaths have something to do with him. The key to the terrible truth about his life lies in the history of his family that is presented to the reader in a series of flashbacks.
One day Heinrich visits his father. There he meets a beautiful young woman named Tanya, who looks amazingly like Lisa, Heinrich's first and only love.
Heinrich was 17, when he unintentionally fatally wounded his girlfriend Lisa with a knife that he took away from one of his attackers during a fight with some drunken hooligans. An old friend of his fathers from the NKVD—his father always told him that he used to work as a geologist at the North Pole—helps him. Heinrich is not charged with a crime, but his two best friends, Bajbikov and Volokhov, who had to perjure themselves, turn away from him.
His father is behaving unusually. He has installed a security camera on the door to the apartment, claims he is being followed and suspects Tanya to be part of the conspiracy against him. He is convinced that she has been sent by the ones he has been waiting for since his retirement from the KGB (the successor organization to the NKVD).
He was picked up by the NKVD in 1934. He is accused of having murdered a number of people who had brought photos to his shop to be retouched. An NKVD officer has him erase a stenographer who works for the secret service from a snapshot, and she too dies. After that Heinrich works for the NKVD and in doing so avoids all the repressions that Soviet citizens of German heritage were exposed to when the war began.
The photographer erases half of Stalin's Politburo from the photographic record and simultaneously from life. At the end of 1944, the invisible creator of history, whose strange gift is known only to his case officer, erases one of the spectators from the famous picture of Lenin playing chess with Maxim Gorky on Capri in 1908. It was Benito Mussolini, who is shortly thereafter shot in Italy.
It was only several years after the war that the photographer managed to get hold of a photo of his case officer. Almost as if he had had a premonition, shortly before his death the officer wrote a report for his superiors, in which he detailed the photographer's strange skills. His report is stamped "RETENTION: IN PERPETUITY", and placed in the archives.
Having been let go by the KGB, the photographer now works for an industrial periodical and raises his son by himself. His wife died shortly after his son's birth, and from a very early age, the young Heinrich suspected that his mother's death was not of natural causes.
The morning after the unusual meeting with Tanya, his father confirms Heinrich's frightful suspicions and tells him why for the last few years he has supposedly only taken pictures of industrial parks. He had always been afraid that his son had inherited his gift, and had, therefore, never wanted him to be a photographer. And Heinrich also has a son, one he has never seen, who lives with his ex-wife in the U.S.A. …
Suddenly a truck appears out of nowhere. His father is pronounced dead at the scene. Besides Heinrich and Tanya there is hardly anyone at the funeral. Heinrich finds his father's notebook and sees that all his old friends and acquaintances that are in it are dead. And he discovers two photos that show the same scene. In one of them, he is standing there with Lisa, in the other one, he is standing there alone. His father had seen to it back then that Lisa died at Heinrich's own hand.
Heinrich is afraid that Tanya could have had something to do with his father's killers, but he has fallen in love with her. He wants to start a new life and destroys his archive of photos. It, unfortunately, soon becomes clear that too many people want to make use of his gift. Someone breaks into his apartment and into the apartment of his father as well.
His father had left behind a stack of photos of Heinrich's old school friend Bajbikov, who, in the meantime, has become a famous politician with presidential ambitions. There have recently been a number of attempts on his life that he has only narrowly escaped from. Before his death, his father had told him that he absolutely had to call Bajbikov. And Tanya tells Heinrich that Bajbikov had brutally raped her when she was fourteen. Heinrich decides that he will consciously use his gift now to rid the world of all scoundrels and criminals. He erases Bajbikov from the negative of one of the photos.
The next morning he sees two cars leaving Bajbikov's apartment. Bajbikov is mortally wounded, but he holds on long enough to give Heinrich a container of microfilm that holds data on off-shore accounts where funds of the now defunct Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) have been secreted, and information on terror groups whose leaders gather, waving a banner with a swastika, and promise to return order to Russia, unaware that their efforts are being financed with Communist Party money or that they are being used by former members of the KGB.
Heinrich recognizes that he has only been used in a secret war against Bajbikov. In despair he erases his own face from a self-portrait, but nothing happens …