The President's Last Love by Andrey Kurkov

"Gorka!"
Preparing to write a review I considered what I knew of the former Soviet country from which Andrey Kurkov hails. And it amounted to this:

1) Former Ukrainian footballer Oleg Romanovych Luzhny [Олег Романович Лужний] is the most capped captain of the international side (which at the time of Luzhny's retirement from international football also included erstwhile Liverpool FC striker Andriy Viktorovych Voronin [Андрій Вікторович Воронін])

державний прапор України
2) The national flag is split equally between two fields of yellow (bottom) and blue (top) thus:


3) Andrey Kurkov had written (at least) two novels featuring a truly poignant penguin named Misha, rescued from Kiev zoo when it closed.

4) I habitually but inexplicably refer to the country as The Ukraine.

No, not that Man of Steel, this one.
I am also loving the pipe, Joe.
This last thought caused me some confusion. I considered first that it might be because it begins with a vowel, but I don't say "The Albania". Perhaps because it begins with the letter U? No again; Uzbekistan does not share Ukraine's fate (I nearly did it then too!). The only plausible hypothesis, still bollocks, is that as a former Soviet state, it was somewhere one was sent to - a bit like Coventry but colder and without the death of the soul involved in even contemplating life there - in the event that one displeased the Man of Steel. Consider the mountain range in the east of Russia, The Urals, another common exile of naughty free-thinkers. Like I said, bollocks.

So my shameful knowledge of Ukrainian history is exhibited for public scrutiny. Going into the novel I spent a little time worrying that I would not truly understand the humour, many political jokes, and topical (or at least contemporary) references within the various time frames operating therein, being a threefold narrative from Sergey Pavlovich Bunin's life at key moments - his youthful development, his early political career, and his Presidency into a projected future for this young democracy. But typical of my own disjointed narrative, I was worrying for nothing.

Kurkov is deadpan, hilarious and completely accessible. A keen observer and caricaturist of Homo-Sovieticus and the reformed Communists of the dissolved USSR alike, his humour transcends place, his pathos possessing the keen edge of a sword which hangs over us all. Additionally, he appears to be somewhat prescient of developments in world politics, confidently predicting that in 2013 there would be a dynamic young Conservative Prime Minister of the UK (ah! so maybe that explains the almost automatic use of the definitive article!) courting the approval of world leaders. Once one becomes acclimatized to the rhythm of his writing, and to the fractured nature of the triumvirate of tales, something which at first annoyed but quickly became addictive, there seems little lost to translation*. Bunin is personable, entertaining, and worthy of both sym- and em-pathy, and despite nagging worries that later proved unfounded (an old refrain) about political infidelity from his colleagues and subordinates, manages to come out pretty well in the end, all things considered. What we get is a strangely well-constructed novel, moreish and satisfying, and despite constant stereotypical references to drinking, something Tibor Fischer laments, really has no serious flaws to stop one from properly enjoying oneself. 

As a voice from a country incongruously lacking in home-schooled, resident literary tradition, Kurkov possess all he needs in terms of skills and ability to properly wow an international audience. And contrary to the chaps at The Guardian, not everyone wishes he would bring back the penguin.

*Oddly, Kurkov's translator prefers to remain anonymous in my edition - unlike in previous and subsequent works (George Bird [Death and the Penguin, The Case of the General's Thumb]and Amanda Love Darragh  [The Milkman in the Night])

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