Monday, 23 February 2015

The Case of the General's Thumb by Andrey Kurkov

Sausage, vodka, and a tortoise...
I could have sworn I’d read this book before; the title, the cover illustration, the date of publication (right in the middle of one of my customary author flurries) all sing out familiarly, but I can recall none of the details. This is not as unusual as it sounds. In my youth I spent many days with a creeping feeling I’d read what I was reading before, especially the 82nd Precinct novels of Ed McBain, as I was grateful recipient of the generous and occasionally forgetful book-sourcing of my lovely librarian mother. I must have re-read the first six or so Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, and the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, maybe upwards of five times, and without complaint.

However, having now potentially re-read this novel, I can see why I may have forgotten it previously. When compared to Death and the Penguin, which is ultimately the first point of reference for anything that Kurkov writes given its pathos, poignancy and wit, this is rather turgid. Not that it’s hard to read, slow or uninteresting – far from it, as it races along with its dual storyline towards a predictable narrative convergence – but rather it suffers from being the charming yet inoffensive relative to something more interesting. The titular thumb, almost forgotten by the time it re-emerges, plays only a tiny part, unconvincingly too – would you as a diligent bank clerk, even to investors of extreme wealth, accept a dismembered thumb as proof of identity for the withdrawal of $4 billion? – and honestly, I lost track of the various players in the mystery quite frequently, mistaking one for another in the two time lines and generally being a little less than gruntled. Perhaps this is a particularly niche novel, one whose humour, direct and obvious jokes at the expense of the formerly Soviet bureaucracy aside, is lost on the product of a WASP-ish liberal up-bringing, but even so there weren’t that many instances where I thought I detected the attempt. It’s unlikely that a novel where 50% of the protagonists hurl frozen fish over the wall of a stately home is meant to be a serious satire, so I'll just have to admit I don’t get the humour. However, it didn’t stop me reading to the end.

So in conclusion, a disappointed review about a disappointing novel. I guess I’ll have to file this under Difficult Fourth Novel and not worry about it. In truth it won’t bother me, and is unlikely to bother anyone else. I don’t regret having read it, only that it doesn’t do justice to the writer that brought us penguin Misha.

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