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The President's Last Love by Andrey Kurkov

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])


How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.

The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca

So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more impor…

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…