Friday, November 07, 2008

Krazy in Kiev

Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin
Penguin Lost
The Case of the General's Thumb
A Matter of Life and Death

The Soviet Union might have collapsed in ’91, but apparently, a lot of people never got the notice. Most were hit men, secret service officers, politicians and other small time crooks.
To most of Kurkov’s protagonists it doesn’t matter either way: Viktor, the other Viktor, Nik and Tolya might, on paper, be citizens of a democratic state, but the reality is somewhat different. A journalist, a police officer and a former border patrol officer they get drafted into mysterious jobs or cases never really understanding whose interests they are serving.

A couple of strange events, coincidences or plain bad luck strap them onto a crazy carnival ride at the beginning of each book, and they just try to hang on as best they can. Fortunately, they are all endowed with a Greek tragedy sense of just how pointless it is to fight destiny, or to try the emergency button: just as with most lifts in the apartment blocks of Kiev they are not working.

Viktor of the Penguin books and Viktor and Nik of General’s Thumb are all manipulated by shady characters that mysteriously appear and disappear with strange requests. Some might be trying to help but don’t bet on it – in Kurkov’s books everyone has motivations tied to countless other characters that never step out of the shadows – not so much puppet strings as a whole ball of yarn.

Between Germany, where former KGB agents are still being reactivated, Chechnya where hidden crematoriums silently perform the war’s clean-up and the Balkans where war criminals are living it up in their yachts, Kurkov takes us on a wild ride where we meet a bunch of good guys who get screwed over as predictably as Russian mobsters’ kids graduate from Oxford: there is a hit man who is fluent in sign language and has a soft spot for all creatures great and small, a quad arm wrestling team, a stream of beautiful young prostitutes with the obligatory hearts of gold, and the undoubted star – Misha the penguin – looking on an increasingly warm ex-empire, where ideologues turned into mobsters in the time it takes to down a shot of vodka.

All the protagonists’ share Tolya’s feeling in “A Matter of Life and Death”: “the strange sensation that what happened had nothing to do with me”. But, hey, maybe it was the alcohol – after all, Kurkov’s characters are not afraid to engage in a little (or a lot) of Eastern European cliché binge drinking.

It’s cold (not enough for Misha though) and somewhat depressing; good people get manipulated, their lives are expendable and in the end the bad guys get the billions stashed in the Cyprus account; or they get re-elected. So what? Play your cards right and you might get a state appointed apartment, a Bosnian girlfriend or at least a couple liters of melon flavored vodka.
And sometimes that depressing Ukrainian crap is just plain sweet - as when Tolya’s prostitute girlfriend asks:

“Would you marry me? Lena asked out of the blue with a note of irony.”
“I think I’d rather adopt you.”

Of course in the end they can’t spend New Year’s together – she’s “booked for a bankers’ “mini Decameron”.
“A what?
Orgy with group sex. I’m looking to the future, saving for a one-roomer.”

Slavs – sweet yet psycho.
You sort of want to love ‘em and still keep a safety distance of a few thousand kilometers.
Reading Kurkov is just the thing.

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