x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

National treasure

Books Rachel Sugar reads the new novel by the Ukranian satirist Andrey Kurkov, who describes his home country as a jovially depressed place populated by hapless bureaucrats and cheerful mobsters

A statue of the poet Taras Shevchenko, considered the father of modern Ukranian literature, looms above Ukranian flags at a 2004 opposition rally in Kiev.
A statue of the poet Taras Shevchenko, considered the father of modern Ukranian literature, looms above Ukranian flags at a 2004 opposition rally in Kiev.

Rachel Sugar reads the new novel by the Ukranian satirist Andrey Kurkov, who describes his home country as a jovially depressed place populated by hapless bureaucrats and cheerful mobsters. The Good Angel of Death Andrey Kurkov Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield Harvill Secker Dh76 In Andrey Kurkov's 1996 novel A Matter of Death and Life, the passively depressed narrator, Tolya, sums up the Kurkovian take on the post-Soviet condition: "Beyond the bounds of my own daily round, I had a great liking for life," he explains. As a bunch, Kurkov's characters are unhappy and good humoured about it. The grey-on-grey landscape seems to inspire an unexpectedly jovial national depression. Even in action, Kurkov's heroes are exceedingly passive. They are continually bewildered (and often endangered) by an onslaught of bizarre and seemingly unprovoked events. The men seem to fall into their dangerous circumstances and shady political involvements without understanding or consent. In Death and the Penguin, Viktor, an unemployed writer, is hired to pre-write obituaries of the not-yet-dead for the local paper. It is well into his tenure when he notices that his subjects seem to be getting murdered as soon as he finishes writing about them. The dual protagonists in The Case of the General's Thumb find themselves thrust into the corrupt battle between the Russian and Ukrainian secret services. Even the fictional Ukrainian president of The President's Last Love seems to have stumbled into his post by accident. Kurkov's men - always likeable, often lonely - slip down bureaucratic rabbit holes and resurface in a world of post-Soviet oligarchs and their machinations. Totally accepting and endlessly resilient, they seem no worse for wear. Kurkov's more sinister characters - nearly everyone else - are no less charming. They are mobsters and corrupt government officials who take hilariously meticulous care of their animals, leave Christmas presents for their children, and happily consume huge quantities of vodka with our heroes. Indeed, it's hard to tell whether the moral landscape of Kurkov's Ukraine is profoundly bleak or perversely heartening. Everyone may be corrupt, but no one, from murderers to arms dealers, seems all that bad. In the same madcap spirit, Kurkov's women tend to be plump and agreeable, and relationships seem forged less on compatibility than on coincidence. Rather than meet, characters collide in space and time; the results are at once dryly anti-romantic and strangely uplifting. In A Matter of Death and Life, Tolya drunkenly picks up a prostitute, and they fall into an easy courtship. In The Case of the General's Thumb, Nik somehow bypasses courtship and slips into an affair with an Aeroflot counter assistant. All relationships - sexual or otherwise - seem like random assemblages of concerned parties, none more so than the ad hoc family in Death and the Penguin: "The zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a king penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely." Later, when Viktor unexpectedly inherits a precocious five-year-old girl, he feels some intellectual surprise, but no visceral panic. This is just how the world works. She fits right in. Kolya, the hapless everyman in Kurkov's latest novel, The Good Angel of Death, is a middle-aged Russian expat living in Kiev (Kurkov himself is a similar transplant), where he works as the night watchman at a Finnish baby food factory. On page one, Kolya is moving into a new flat. By page two, he has stumbled upon an annotated manuscript of Taras Shevchenko's The Kobza Player hidden, matryoshka-style, within a large-print edition of War and Peace. Kurkov's previous novels are political satires, no doubt, but a basic working knowledge of post-Soviet culture is sufficient to find them both hilarious and biting. A good sense for Ukraine's Orange Revolution, for example, makes The President's Last Love all the more prescient, but a vague image of the general climate will do. The Good Angel of Death is less forgiving. The problem is Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian historical figure who, however deserving, is little known outside of the former Soviet empire. Unfortunately, Kolya's quest is intimately tied up with the facts and outstanding mysteries of Shevchenko's life - all of which are assumed too obvious to mention. Alas, for the non-Ukrainian reader (presumably the audience for this translation), they aren't. A quick overview, then: Shevchenko was a 19th-century Ukrainian poet and painter. Today he is considered not only the father of modern Ukrainian literature but also an instrumental figure in the evolution of the modern Ukrainian language. Born a serf in the Kiev Governorate of Imperial Russia but educated in St Petersburg, Shevchenko's first volume of poems, Kobzar, (here translated as The Kobza Player), ushered in a new age of Ukrainian writing. Always concerned with the oppressive conditions in his homeland, Shevchenko was ultimately sent into exile by the Imperial government for his affiliation with the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a liberal secret society working to transform the empire into a federation of Slavic nations. Even after returning from exile, Shevchenko never managed to repatriate to his beloved Ukraine. After his death in St Petersburg, however, his friends arranged for his posthumous homecoming. His remains were ultimately set to rest in his homeland, where his face appears on currency, and monuments in his honour dot every major city. Kolya is entranced by the marginalia in Shevchenko's manuscript, mostly musings on the nature of patriotism. It is possible, one note reads, to define "patriotism as love for woman and hatred of military service, especially of mindless drilling". "All earth has been the primary foundation of mankind," reminds another. Kolya, a one-time would-be academic, sets out to determine who wrote the annotations, and why. There is no particular urgency to the quest. But then, there's no particular urgency to any of Kurkov's characters, since none of them have anything to do, much less a deadline by which to do it. Unless they are chasing or being chased by a mafia-like, extragovernmental organisation, no one moves with any purpose whatsoever. In Kurkov's Ukraine, purpose is in short supply. A few chess games, a funeral, and an exhumed body later, Kolya may not have the answers, but he can begin to articulate the question. He's managed to identify the annotator as Slava Gershovich, an amateur philosopher and all-around "great guy", executed for having figured out "where something very important for the Ukrainian people was hidden". But as soon as Kolya begins investigatingGershovich, he starts receiving anonymous threatening phone calls. Even his job at the baby food factory turns sinister - "baby food" turns out to be anything but. With his life threatened in Kiev, and reason to believe the crux of the mystery is buried in a fort in the sands of the Mangyshlak Peninsula, Kolya quietly disappears into the Kazak desert. We've come to know Kurkov as the voice of contemporary urban life in the Ukraine. Out in the desert with Kolya, his gift seems to whither. We've come to expect the expert craftsmanship of Kurkov's sharp, clear sentences; here, they have been replaced by what seem like heavy, clouded imitations. I confess I do not read Russian. Still, the marked stylistic shift between Kurkov's previous novels and The Good Angel of Death suggests that translation is at least partially to blame. "Sakhno was not in the least abashed at discovering he'd bought a hearse. 'Wouldn't be seen dead in one, but now I'm not bothered,' was his comment," observes the narrator of The Case of the General's Thumb. Ruminating on his marital dissatisfaction in A Matter of Death and Life, Tolya describes his wife as "totally lacking in warmth, something I found infuriating in a woman, particularly when she was in bed beside me". I can only assume that such acerbic dryness is Kurkov's gift, expertly reconstructed in English by translator George Bird. In Andrew Bromfield's shaky hands, though, Kurkov's wit feels flat. "I've always liked books like that, not necessarily for their contents, but for that sturdy, respectable look they have," Kolya muses. Here and elsewhere, we get the impression that Bromfield is dutiful to a fault - some glib sentiment still amuses, but the wry, perfectly meted elegance is gone. As early as the second page we get a taste of what we're in for: "After teacher training college, I had spent the three mandatory years as a history teacher in a rural school, but all that time I had never succeeded in instilling into those wholesome, ruddy-cheeked offspring of milkmaids and tractor drivers either the slightest interest in history or any desire whatever to unravel the numerous historical riddles and mysteries I had gleaned out of heaps of books analysed with a pencil in my hand." The disappointing atonality can be blamed on clumsy translation. And yet, while it is perhaps impossible to definitively parse style from substance, it seems a safe bet that Bromfield is not responsible for the novel's most fundamental shortcomings. Most dissapointingly, the fumbling unions that characterise previous Kurkovian romances are replaced here with a kind of fairy-tale love story. Kolya meets his beloved, Gulya, en route to his big desert dig. She is incredibly beautiful, and accordingly she seems to have no other characteristics. Gulya may have a soulfulness beyond language, but we miss the women of novels past: the manic Vika; Tatiana of Aeroflot; Nina, the very young nanny with yellow-stained teeth. It is the very averageness of Kurkov's previous "love interests" that gives them their warmth. Never saccharine, these side stories are sweet because they are utterly mundane, not in spite of the fact. As they trudge through the desert in search of their national holy grail, Kolya and Gulya are captured, then counter-captured. It seems that everyone has an eye on Kolya's project, from the colourful Ukrainian Secret Service to the notoriously radical (and equally animated) Ukrainian Nationalist Assembly. Their collective obsession with Shevchenko facilitates what seems to be Kurkov's project: an explication of the evolving meaning of patriotism, of nationhood, of Ukrainian-ness. It would be churlish to reveal his conclusions, as they're intertwined with the resolution of Kolya's Indiana Jones-esque trek. I will note, however, that it's a bit of a letdown to see ideological ends tie up so neatly, for the question of Ukranian-ness to reach what seems like a definitive conclusion. The same applies to the novel's treatment of love: it ends with Kolya and Gulya, who still hardly know each other, settling into domestic bliss.
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.