This latest translated offering from Kurkov is typical fare. Moving into a new flat in Kiev, Kolya finds that the previous owner has left behind an edition of War and Peace. Inside it is hollowed out and nested in there is a heavily annotated version of a book by the poet Shevchenko. A series of bizarre events follow that propel Kolya onto a voyage of discovery, crossing the Caspian Sea and the deserts of Kazakhstan. Along the way he meets the usual troupe of misfits, finds love, and is adopted by a chameleon.
It also seems, in part, to be addressing Kurkov’s own situation – a Russian living in his adopted Ukraine, still writing in Russian. This is done through the story about the Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, itself an interesting enough background. Kurkov, however, cannot resist adding his own surreal spin on the matter with a tale of sand imbued with the ‘spirit of the Ukraine’.
At one level, this is all one might expect of Kurkov - a whimsical, surreal tale with a very dark edge. At other levels, the book is a disappointment. Putting the lax proof reading to one side (missing and misspelled words, and at least one occasion when characters are mixed up), it is difficult to pinpoint what I felt was wrong with the book. The text has a different translator to previous Kurkov books. That said, Bromfield is a good translator. Either he was having a bad month or so, or the text is just plain dull.
Part of that is down to the first person narrative that realies on a dull narrator. Dull not just in his narrative abilities, but as a character. Even given the surreal events of Kurkov’s books, his central character usually has good motive for what he does. Kolya seems to be an empty vessel. Given the subject matter, this may have been intentional, but it doesn’t make for a good read.
Plodding style and poor character development are married with a story that is far too obscure to travel easily beyond the deep concerns regarding nationalism that are to be found around the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. There is certainly a story to be told, but this has failed to be it.
Another problem is the length of the text. It is far too long for a story of this nature. Had it been condensed to about two-thirds its current length without losing any of the content it would have been a much more intriguing read, capturing that poetic surrealism of earlier works. Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking this book was an earlier work, something Kurkov had written before he finally managed to get published and has since resurrected.
Having said all that, I still read the book to the end. Kurkov, even when not at his best, is still worth reading, and the book does improve toward the end. If you’ve not read him before, start with this as it lets you in gently to his view of the world. If you like it, you have much better books to move on to. And if you don’t like it, you have better stuff to move on to.