Skip to main content

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])

Comments

How's about that then?

Apochryphal Tales by Karel Čapek

Many (many) years ago, when I first read War With The Newts, after scouring the Waterstones' internal database (whimsically named Ibid, and from which one could print the details of books onto the till roll in light- and so it seems, time-sensitive purple ink which, on the inches thick ream of leaves I printed for future perusal, faded within a few months rendering my catalogued wish list so much locker mulch) for authors with a suitably Czech-sounding name, having put away an entrée of my first slim Hrabal, a palate-cleansing Kundera and in need of a meaty Moravian main course, I think I might have completely and totally missed just how funny it was, bloated as I was by the doughy and Victorian-sounding translation and the rather unlikely ideation of the future political terroir of mankind and their unusual amphibian slaves and, latterly, sappers, the newts.

How's that for a sentence David Foster Wallace? INTERROBANG.

Well, there's no chance that Čapek's typically Czech…

Free Fall In Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Trav is back, still grieving the loss of some chickadee or other whose death almost knocked him off his game, but not too shook up to set himself up with a few more lucky lovelies whilst tripping his way through another overly complicated and rather sordidly underwhelming plot. This time, some bikers are making dirty movies with minors on the set of a future classic hot-air-balloon movie. Travis falls into the action because a rich old geyser carks it in unusual circumstances and it affects the trust fund of a former marina-mate. And hirsute intellectual Meyer wets his pants towards the end. 

You may sense a fatigued, sardonic note in my precis. It's not that I don't still love John D., it's just that after embarking on the long game that is reading the entire Travis McGee oeuvre, I'm approaching the end and it feels long overdue. It's been fun, it's been enlightening, but it's also been a schlep. With the realisation I might now have fewer years left to me …

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …