The decrepitude of old age is a piteous sight and subject. In his second book Michael Honig — a doctor-turned-novelist and sharp observer of the body’s frailties, and the mind’s — zanily explores it through the imagined senility of Vladimir Putin, once supremely powerful, now struggling to tie his laces. The horror, sadness and momentary furies of dementia are all traced in Vladimir’s plight, plus the tedium and — especially — the bleak comedy. As the story opens, he is visited by his successor: ‘I’m going to fire that bastard,’ he says. ‘Have we got cameras?’ On a lakeside walk he strips off for phantom paparazzi. These fiascos are parodies of a parody, the actual Putin’s macho antics themselves being a pantomime of statecraft, staged with an invisible wink, as Honig’s send-ups help you to see.
The conceit is that, after serving five terms as president and two as prime minister, Vladimir is confined to a dacha outside Moscow. He is diligently nursed by Sheremetev, a sort of holy fool and possibly the most honest man in Russia, whose probity has ‘earned him only laughter and contempt’. The patient’s short-term recall has evaporated, but, as they often are, his distant memories are undimmed, in his case involving wars (he has annexed part of Belarus), assassinations and rigged elections. Sheremetev tactfully doesn’t listen to his ramblings about kickbacks and shake-downs, just as he is unaware of the orgy of graft his dacha colleagues are conducting: ‘Like fish gorging themselves on a whale’s flesh even while the whale was still alive.’
Two developments shock him from his innocence. War erupts between Stepanin the cook — a fine comic creation almost as profane as Vladimir, who is trying to amass the capital to open a ‘Russian fusion’ restaurant — and the housekeeper over mark-ups on poultry supplies. Even Sheremetev cannot ignore the stench from the carcasses that are the conflict’s symbolic collateral damage. Second, his beloved nephew is arrested for insubordination. The bribe-price of his freedom is $300,000. Despairingly, Sheremetev begins to eye Vladimir’s watch collection, to rationalise and to eavesdrop.
This is not a post-Putin dystopia in the manner of Vladimir Sorokin; Honig is not much interested in the future. Rather, like some novels by Mikhail Bulgakov — one of Russia’s own great doctor-authors — his satire is an inflection and commentary on contemporary reality. In it he shows as sure a grasp of the guts of kleptocracy, with all its mutual blackmail and spoils-sharing, as of the tragicomedy of age. And by exploring how far a person remains responsible for his past, and how forgivable it becomes, amid its screwball rage this very funny book is also an unexpectedly touching one.