Ian Sansom

Nothing quite adds up

Let my children study Kurkov for GCSE English, says Ian Sansom (rather than the spoken language of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay)

Whimsy, satire and deadpan humour: welcome to the world of Andrey Kurkov. If you know Kurkov’s work, The Bickford Fuse will be no surprise and need no introduction. It’s not Death and the Penguin or A Matter of Death and Life (read them first), but it’s certainly Kurkov in welcome and familiar mode. For newcomers and to summarise: he’s really a kind of Ukrainian Kurt Vonnegut, a serious writer never more serious than when he’s being funny about unfunny things, and with a whole lifetime of unfunny things to be serious about. As the second world war was to Vonnegut, so the Soviet Union is to Kurkov. If — as Oscar Wilde believed — our duty towards history is to rewrite it, then Kurkov has long been working overtime. If you want to read about the Soviet Union but can’t face reading, say, Robert Service, and you have a penchant for the strange and surreal, you could do worse than reading Kurkov.

The events in the book (published in 2009 in Russian) begin at the end of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War: it’s a book, according to Kurkov himself, about ‘Soviet man’. A group of disparate Soviet men go wandering throughout the land in search of meaning — and that’s it. This perhaps makes the book sound like Tarkovsky’s Stalker — one of those seemingly endless allegories of life under communism. It is in fact more like an allegory of life under any -ism: maddening, subject to chaos and chance, and often unintelligible.

There is Gorych, for example, and his unnamed companion, driving around with a massive searchlight in the back of a truck. There is the mysterious occupant of a black airship, prone to throwing overboard cases of cigarettes. There is Andrey, who leaves the remote monastery where he lives with his father and brothers, having laboured with them to make a wooden ‘humming’ bell.

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