Skip to main content

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.

Comments

How's about that then?

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes fo…

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 …

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

I thought I'd talked about Thomas Bernhard here somewhere before - the vitriol, the bitterness, the hilarity that was Old Masters - but it appears not, or, more likely, that I search like I think; superficially. Nevertheless, at least I now have the opportunity to present him for your consideration, albeit with the oily glaze of my opinion applied liberally. 

An Austrian author and playwright, Bernhard had a curious relationship with the land of his birth. He was highly critical of both the people and state, regularly attacking the church, the government, the populace (who he labelled stupid and stubbornly contemptuous) and venerable old institutions like the concert halls and cultural venues of Vienna. Indeed, in his will, he strictly forbade any new productions of his works, both unpublished novels and poems, and stagings of his plays. His characters often deliver long monologues filled with bile and spite, frequently inhabiting considered but oddly irrational-seeming positions. …

Love And Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

"When he was young, like me, he said, he used to think that all the great writers knew something he didn't... He was burning to write, he wanted to break through to that fancy knowledge, he was hungry for it. But now he knew that that hunger was vainglorious; now he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side." – The Noble Truth of SufferingYou know me and short stories–I shan't revisit old graves–but every now and again I find a collection, usually with one author, that simply blows me away. Something in them speaks to personae I didn't even know I hid behind. Something rips free the mask, the fiercely clutched identity, fake as you like, and exposes everything. Those authors I fall madly in love with, because I hate them. I detest that they can say things that are as yet unformed zygotes in the barren womb of my mind, not even the germ of a clumsy, badly phrased …