Let’s get the gripes out of the way first. To begin with, the translation. Whilst it is no doubt technically correct, it is possibly the dullest and most literal translation I have come across in years. Kurkov has been poorly served and a lot of the subtlety of his earlier writing (and which you sense is still there) has been lost. Indeed, the better known he has become, the worse has become the production of his books. Which leads to the second gripe. Proof reading. Do big publishers just not bother these days? Is it given to a semi-literate intern? One who doesn’t even know how to use a spell check (because some of the typos would have been picked up by that). It makes the book look shoddy and cheap. Which leads to my final gripe. Kurkov needs an editor. His early books were sharply written. Now they are bloated. I have no objection to a book being long if that is needed to tell the story, but we don’t need to know (time after time) that someone turned left onto this street and right onto that street before cutting through this alley and across that square, with asides that could have been lifted from a joke version of a tourist information leaflet for Kiev. It makes for incredibly dull writing in itself and ruins what would otherwise be a perfect book.
Now I’ve got that off my chest, I can affirm that I still believe Kurkov to be a writer who is streets ahead (turn left down this one and right down that one before cutting into an alley and across a square – even all those streets) of contemporary mainstream literary British writers.
On the surface this might seem a superficial romance in which the lives of various characters living in and around Kiev are slowly woven together. Slowly is the operative word. Even had Kurkov been stricter with his editing, this is a book that proceeds at a leisurely, almost somnambulistic pace. And appropriately so. It is about everyday life and everyday folk and the wholly bizarre and often surreal everyday world in which they (and the rest of us) live.
The slow pace and quiet presentation of events are, as always with Kurkov, both disarming and deceiving. Because when you get to the end, you realise that a revolution has taken place. And along the way, the everyday concerns of everyday folk (which sounds a lot worse than it really is) have been examined, turned inside out, put right way back, and turned through one hundred and eighty degrees.
The many interweaving plots are to complex to relate, although they are not at all difficult to follow once you have remembered who is who. The overall effect is one of gentle comedy and great affection for the people and their country. Don’t expect another Penguin book. The surrealism is much more subtle. Do expect to be charmed and drawn in and, gripes notwithstanding, find yourself immersed in a fantasy every bit as compelling as the real life it reflects.