Saturday, September 29, 2007


This book was passed on to me with a recommendation from a couple of friends who had read it and enjoyed it recently.

I must confess I was also attracted by the title.

And the Daily Telegraph's rave review, quoted on the front cover here, that it was "a tragi-comic masterpiece" also intrigued me.... although at the same time it disposed me towards a certain scepticism.

It's a short and easy read, and provides a fascinating glimpse of life in the Ukraine in the mid-90s, shortly after the Soviet collapse. This life, not unsurprisingly, is unrelentingly grim and impoverished - heavy drinking is a knee-jerk response to this bleakness (the male characters share a bottle of something almost every other page), corruption is ubiquitous, and murder is a routine act of politics, an almost-daily background event.

The protagonist, Viktor, is a would-be writer who manages to land himself a lifeline job writing flowery obituaries (or obelisks, as they jokingly nickname them) for a leading Kiev newspaper. The problem is that he is being asked to write these obituaries on 'notables' of the local political and business scene who are not yet dead - although many of them start turning up dead shortly after he has delivered his copy. Viktor gradually realises that his obelisks are somehow being manipulated as part of a labyrinthine vendetta between the country's high-and-mighty, an unhappy circumstance which puts his own life in jeopardy.

It's a nice idea, but it never really goes anywhere: the workings of the conspiracy - who Viktor's real 'employers' are and what the significance of the obelisks is - remain determinedly obscure.

There's a similar purposelessness to the figure of the penguin. Viktor keeps a pet penguin, Misha, in his apartment; he adopted it from the Kiev zoo a year or two earlier, when it began closing down for shortage of funds. There's a certain quirky charm to this, but no real significance. Apart from being a mirror of Viktor's own morose temperament, Misha the penguin carries no symbolic weight, and his presence in the story is frustratingly enigmatic, not to say pointless (until the very end, when it sets up the perfunctory denouement). Kurkov, apparently, has written a lot of film scripts, and I can see this penguin idea stemming from that experience. In a film it would provide strong visual interest, and generate a lot more humour and a lot more revelation of the pet-owner's character than it does here in a novella.

I wonder how much Kurkov might see Viktor as his alter ego. Early on, Viktor laments that he is unable to write anything substantial any more - he can only manage short stories, and even these are too short to get published anywhere. Kurkov seems to be suffering from a similar failing in this book. It is extremely slight and episodic, being divided into nearly 80 micro-chapters, most of them no more than a page or two long (and it's big print, too). Nothing very much happens. Various characters are briefly introduced, only to arbitrarily disappear again - presumed or reported to be dead.

I've seen a number of reviews that praise the book's deadpan humour, but I couldn't detect any of this. I would say that there is merely detachment here, an unremitting moral blankness. Incidents that might have the potential to evoke a certain black humour - army officers protecting their country dachas against burglary with landmines outside the door; the attendance of the penguin briefly becoming a voguish novelty at gangland funerals - are recounted in a tone of complete neutrality that fails to engage the sense of amusement.

No, for me, the book is not comic. Neither is it at all tragic. There is no story arc here, no character development. Viktor at the end of the book is no different than he was at the beginning, and the fact that he foresees his own death leaves us unmoved. He is such a complete non-entity that we just don't care what happens to him. I was reminded briefly of the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There - but in that film (one of my favourites) the central character's lack of personality or morality is constantly exposed, challenged, called into question. Here, the rest of the novel is as blank as Viktor himself.

I gather that there's a sequel, but I'm not in any hurry to read it.

At least it's a very quick and undemanding read, and an insight into the corrupt aftermath of the USSR. But it doesn't, alas, do much to advertise the merits of post-Soviet literature.


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moonrat said...

interesting. it looks like we've hit the mainstream, what with all the spam comments on yours and rose's entries...

Froog said...

What is this? Brazilian spam??

How does my dissing a bad Ukrainian novel attract that?