Monday, 4 July 2011

Book Review: The Good Angel of Death by Andrey Kurkov

Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield.

The Good Angel of Death is probably the most bizarre of Andrey Kurkov’s novels yet translated into English. It’s a rambling, episodic narrative, difficult to pin down and even more so to summarise. Indeed, the blurb on the back gives a long-winded synopsis that, it turns out on reading, covers only the first fifty pages! Like the best Kurkov, it also defies easy categorising. Reminiscent of Gogol and part satire, part surreal adventure, part heartfelt romance, part bibliophilic investigation, it juxtaposes the surreal with the mundane, satirising the dichotomy between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian chauvinism in an entertaining yet illuminating manner.

When Kolya moves into a new flat in Kiev, he discovers a small book covered in annotations hidden inside a volume of War and Peace. Intrigued, and curious to discover the identity of the scribbler, he sets out on a typically absurd Kurkovian adventure  that soon comes to involve grave-robbing, hallucinogenic baby milk, mysterious criminal gangs, a chameleon, and a quest to recover an item of great national importance.

Kurkov uses this rampaging plot as a foreground for more pertinent considerations, particularly issues of nationalism and identity in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia. Kurkov is Russian born, Ukrainian adopted, multilingual but writes in Russian. There has been significant criticism of him in Ukraine for doing so, and The Good Angel of Death is his response. It’s written in a polyglot blend of the two languages, mostly Russian but featuring Ukrainian nationalists who speak only in Ukrainian and who are determined to prevent the mysterious item of national importance falling into Kolya’s hands at any cost. And what starts off as an adventure soon progresses towards romance and a very different sort of ending.

It’s a strange and wonderful tale, unlike anything else you will read. What I love most about Andrey Kurkov is that his fiction presents an undistorted view of a society I know nothing about. Reading his work is like being dropped in the middle of a foreign city, lost and alone, and having to discover the world around for yourself. He makes no attempt to explain or simplify for the outsider. There are illusions here that never make sense – the link between the smell of cinnamon and Ukrainian nationalism, for instance, or what exactly happens with the sand – and because of this you come away from it feeling that you’ve learned something about a part of the world you otherwise wouldn’t have.

There’s a sense of unease that travels with the book, too, a wildness that accepts that death could be just around the corner so you might as well sit down and brew a cup of tea. The Good Angel of Death was first published in Russian back in the late 1990’s, in the midst of the post-Soviet era when the mafia stepped in to fill all the roles once occupied by the state. As in much of Kurkov’s fiction, at least those that have been translated into English, lawlessness, and corrupt mafia involvement in every aspect of life, are prominent features. What once was KGB, is now mafia, what once was state run enterprise, is now run by mafia. Former Soviet officials have found power through new channels, and everything has a price. As usual, Kurkov has a joke for it:

“It wouldn’t have been logical to link the presence of the car with the murderer of the photographer. It was clearly just the times that we lived in. Tense times, with lots of murders.”

Andrey Kurkov is a writer for whom no situation is too ugly for humour to cut through. He’s a joy to read, amusing as much with the strange counterpoints he smashes together as the words he uses. In Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer wrote that “humour is the only truthful way to tell a sad story” and that rather seems to fit Kurkov’s approach perfectly.

There’s mythology here too, in the story of the good angel of death, an angel that accompanies solitary travellers and sometimes appears to them in the form of a scorpion (if she doesn’t like them) and sometimes as a chameleon (if she does.) Through it all, as with Misha the penguin in Death and the Penguin, the chameleon wanders in and out of the plot like some benevolent God, invisibly guiding Kolya through his adventures.

The Good Angel of Death is possibly not the most engaging of Kurkov’s fiction. At times it feels messy and a little long. However, in return it gives a unique, interesting, and enjoyable insight into post-Soviet Ukraine and it’s relationships with neighbouring countries. Well worth a read, particularly if you haven’t read any Kurkov before. You’re in for a great experience.

The Good Angel of Death was first published in Russia in 2000. The first English translation appeared by Harvill Secker in trade paperback in 2009. Edition shown is the first paperback edition, published by Vintage in 2010. Pp 376, ISBN: 9780099513490


Anonymous said...

It's good to see you posting again. I wish I weren't such a slow reader, but I love your analyses of books I may never get to!

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks Helen. I'm glad you enjoy the reviews :) If you enjoy the books you read, that is way more important than the quantity of books you read. :)

Biblibio said...

After Death and the Penguin, I'm willing to give Kurkov a pretty reasonable amount of slack when it comes to messiness. That book was just crazy. I have to wonder what goes on in Kurkov's head... The Good Angel of Death sounds pretty weird and interesting (in line with all of Kurkov's stuff), seems well worth checking out...