Andrey Kurkov – The Gardener from Ochakov
(Harvill Secker, 1st August 2013)
Some people see him as a latter-day Bulgakov; to others he’s a Ukrainian Murakami. Andrey Kurkov is best known for the tragicomic Death and the Penguin, which first appeared in English in 2001. The books that followed were often patchy, but always popular. The Gardener from Ochakov, originally published in Russian four years ago, is Kurkov’s eighth novel to make it into English. With a characteristic mix of realism and fantasy, it will delight fans, even if it fails to convert skeptics.
In this light-hearted time-travel adventure, Igor – young, unemployed, living with his mum – helps a mysterious gardener decipher an old tattoo. The resulting treasure hunt unearths a Soviet policeman’s uniform, which transports the wearer to 1957 and the salty, autumnal town of Ochakov on the Black Sea. Igor begins nocturnally commuting, careless of possible paradoxes, to sample the local wine, flirt with a flame-haired fish-seller and bring back flounders for breakfast. Kurkov’s women, however “mischievous”, are sketchy compared to his likeable, male drifters.
Kurkov satirises post-Soviet nostalgia, for “a country that no longer existed” and the days when you could get borshch, breaded cutlet and buckwheat for seven roubles. Igor’s best friend, Kolyan, invites him to a fancy dress party at retro-themed Petrovich (a genuine club, stuffed with vintage memorabilia) and thinks prizes like a trip to North Korea and a night in Lenin’s mausoleum sound “cool”.
As usual, Kurkov combines mundane details of life in modern Ukraine (minibus taxis, mushroom-picking barbecues, tins of sprats and bottles of moonshine) with surreal elements from thrillers and sci-fi: knife-wielding gangsters, or quantum leaps in the midnight suburbs. The plot rattles along, like a Kiev commuter train, stopping regularly for vodka, salami and salted cucumbers.
Comparisons with Dostoevsky are too heavy for Kurkov’s absurdist adventures. Odd glimpses of The Master and Margarita (photos of naked girls on broomsticks) or Chekhov (“their neighbour was attacking an old cherry tree with a chainsaw”) are throwaway gags rather than literary tropes, although there is something Chekhovian in the melancholy humour of interconnected past and future. There could be hints of Gogol too in the policeman’s boots that accommodate the wearer, but Kurkov is quick to deflate his own seriousness. When Igor philosophises “…The past changes its shape and size to fit whoever tries it on”, Kolyan replies: “Whatever!”
Contemporary allusions and a computer-hacking subplot root the novel in the present. Igor wonders at one point whether his experiences will “be like that American film, where the same day repeats itself endlessly, driving the main character insane?” The idea that the present is “woven” from recent history is central: “as long as people remember the past it will remain alive … watching you and telling you what to do.”
Several translators have tackled Kurkov’s work, the latest and most fluent being Amanda Love Darragh. She also translated Kurkov’s last novel The Milkman in the Night featuring a sleepwalker, a sniffer-dog-handler and a woman selling her breast milk. Darragh is in her element here: she won the 2009 Rossica prize for her translation of a time-shift fantasy and recently translated a quirky novella about a wandering Bosnian cat.
Born near Leningrad in 1961, Kurkov was a journalist, prison warder, cameraman and screenplay-writer before his novels took off. Like many famous writers (from Joyce to J.K Rowling), Kurkov struggled at first; he received “hundreds of rejections” and was a pioneer in the now-trendy world of self-publishing.
It is not surprising to learn that Kurkov also wrote five kids’ books, including the bestselling Adventures of Baby Vacuum Cleaner Gosha, self-published in the 1990s. There are shades of Narnia or Alice in Igor’s encounters with a parallel world and several of his adult novels include symbolic animal characters. The Good Angel of Death, with its enigmatic chameleon, was partly a reply to nationalists who attacked Kurkov for not writing in Ukrainian.
Many other writers in Russian favour formal and intellectual experiments. Kurkov’s narratives tend to be straightforward, if meandering, although The President’s Last Love sported a jumbled, postmodern chronology. It also weirdly predicted the poisoning of a Ukranian president, just months after publication, as well as Putin’s later return to power.
Political spectres haunt the shadows behind the comedy in Kurkov’s fiction. Post-war Ochakov is full of “bandits”, but Igor prophesies: “there’ll be more in about fifty years’ time.” Contemporary corruption creates the Kafkaesque background for Kurkov’s human stories. The Gardener from Ochakov is not really about Soviet history, any more than Death and the Penguin was about the mafia; both novels are about individuals coping with circumstances they can’t fully control or comprehend.