The President's Last Love by Andrey Kurkov
Reviewed by Stephen Abell
Times Literary Supplement
The Russian expression "eto yozhu yasno" -- which broadly means "clear-cut", "straightforward" -- is a particularly appropriate description for the prose of Andrey Kurkov, who specializes in deceptively simplistic tales of the Ukrainian absurd. As something of a bonus, the phrase literally means "clear to a hedgehog", which makes it more fitting, given Kurkov's childlike willingness to introduce animals into his fiction (Misha, the creature in the title of Death and the Penguin, 1996, being the most obvious and successful example). There are, regrettably, few animals in Kurkov's latest novel, although hedgehogs do twice feature as metaphors: representing female shoppers inching their way along frozen Kiev streets ("like so many tiny, plump, black hedgehogs"), and as a paragon of intelligence ("smarter than a mating hedgehog"). The phrase can happily stand, then, as a verdict on The President's Last Love, and as both tribute to, and criticism of, the novelistic style of Andrey Kurkov.
The new novel is more ambitious in scope, if not in tone, than its predecessors. It tells the sweeping saga of Sergey Pavlovich Bunin, the President of Ukraine, a figure set apart from the downtrodden nobodies that normally form the focus of Kurkov's writing (like Viktor the obituarist in Death and the Penguin; or Tolya, the unemployed hero of A Matter of Death and Life, 2005, whose "last day seemed likely to go down as my dullest ever, but I was not bothered"). Bunin's life is scarcely dull: married three times, once to his mad brother's wife's twin sister; father of three stillborn children; the owner of a booby-trapped replacement heart, which is used to assist a coup against him.
This self-evidently picaresque tale -- and undemanding satire on post-Communist Ukraine -- is split into three chronological sections, which are interspersed in the narrative: Bunin's early life at home in the late 1980s; his career as a rising political figure in the years after the new millennium; and his time as President in 2015, when he faces the coup. The focus switches almost every page, with 215 individual episodes in all, each one offering an espresso-sized jolt to the reader's attention.
Such a reductive summary is actually faithful to Kurkov's approach to narrative, which has always sought to prioritize, almost to a fault, the virtues of clarity and celerity. Bunin's recollections of episodes in his life are introduced and dismissed with scarcely a pause:
I got banged up for ten days, which involves sweeping the yard, mopping both floors of the District Militia, and playing sly games of blackjack with sixty-year-old Zyama, who is doing fifteen days for crapping on the step of a woman who chalked "Yid" on his.
Descriptive passages are reduced to bare essentials, bulletins fired out to the reader in staccato shorthand: "gleaming floors, arti-ficial scent of spring flowers, views of snow-coloured mountains"; "Time: 6.15pm. Ambient temperature: 5 degrees C. Country: Ukraine. Occasion: New Year".
At such moments, the reader begins to notice the extent to which the prose focuses on the physical, external world. Bunin is tremendously fond of the pathetic fallacy, for example: "rain on leaves, rain everywhere, underfoot and as far as the eye can see. Autumn -- outside and in"; "at dawn it was sunny, then an evil vast cloud descended, casting gloom over all". Indeed, we feel we are being constantly updated with weather reports; the narrator is typically summary about it being typically wintry: "a blizzard and a half; the street a stinging, blinding wall of snow"; "a second week of snow, and everything beneath a soft white carpet". In the end, there is the sense that Kurkov is seeking to provide us with merely postcard prose: succinct nuggets of information, framed by local climatic conditions.
There is some merit in this, of course. One clue as to why comes in the frequency of the "fairy tale" metaphor (lamps "no more than blurred fairy-tale yellow flowers"; "a situation with all the makings of a fairy tale", and so on). Fairy tales are told with a deliberate combination of the magical and the real; they tend to be full of cliches and commonplaces as a means of keeping the story credible. In the same way, Kurkov's brand of magical realism -- with a nod, perhaps, to his fellow Kievan writer Mikhail Bulgakov -- relies on a combination of the extra-ordinary alongside the extraordinary. And the satirical effect is that the absurdist existence of a politician in the Ukraine who is liable to find envelopes of bribe money strewn about his office, hold international conferences in the water of a freezing swimming pool, and have "the key to his heart" in the hands of a political enemy, is treated as a normal feature of everyday existence, like the weather itself.
However, such a determined sense of the outward emphasizes what is often missing from The President's Last Love: love, emotional insight. If the surreal is allowed to slip by in understated fashion, so is the real suffering of Bunin, who is often a sadly isolated individual, and a Job like victim of periodic disaster. Having lost three children stillborn, he learns of the death of his remaining family with typical brusque briskness: "waiting at the door of my office that morning had been Colonel Svetlov with the news that my brother and his wife had jumped to their deaths. Details to follow from the embassy". This is a novel where the details that follow always offer little comfort; when his twins die he receives "a large envelope from the clinic containing Polaroid photographs of our little ones, together with their birth and death certificates, plastic identity wristlets and small cellophane packets with locks of light brown hair". Here as elsewhere, the writing is deliberately unyielding and affectingly unhuggable; all hard facts with little softening sentimentality.
It is also, one must say, otherwise devoid of stylistic merit: the frictionless speed in which the story is told never pauses to allow for passages of artistic expression. This is a serious problem: fiction -- whatever the satirical purpose -- should contain moments of friction, of the sparks that can fire the imagination. The blanket blankness of The President's Last Love may be appropriate to its subject, but there is nothing in the English text to affect the aesthetic faculties of the reader.
The translation by George Bird contains two obvious deficiencies beyond this. First, Bird clearly struggles to cope with Russian colloquialisms, which are rendered in an archaic and parochial English that makes every character sound like a British pensioner from the 1950s: "Get stuffed"; "Parasite! Layabout! Guttersnipe...you're the bane of my life!"; "drunken codswallop"; "just the job". Second, there is ample evidence that metaphor, alongside colloquialism, is the other poor traveller of the literary world: "life is thrusting me into the jaws of a golden-toothed lion"; "clearly verbalized fears and conjectures enter the old-fashioned mincer, but what drops into the bowl beneath, which is your head, is nothing".
At one point, Bunin notes that "talent has no nationality". While this may be true, novels and novelists do have a nationality, which is manifest in the words that appear on the page; and The President's Last Love demonstrates that the migration to another language is not an entirely easy or straight-forward process. However, that is not to say that the novel itself fails to offer many of the expected pleasures of what is a satisfyingly straightforward narrative. In that respect, Kurkov's latest is as clear (not least to a hedgehog) as ever.
Stephen Abell is a freelance writer living in London.