Andrey Kurkov was born in St. Petersburg in 1961, and has worked as a translator, journalist, prison warder as well as a film cameraman. He is a Ukrainian, and it is there that his stories are based, but he writes them in Russian. I was introduced to his writings with Death and the Penguin, and its sequel, Penguin Lost. Since then, Kurkov has been among my favourite authors. It is his writing style that marks him apart- short chapters, linear style of narration with uncomplicated ideas floating around commonplace events. Reality and fantasy are always found intertwined in his novels, and he treats them both in a casual matter-of-factly manner. It is almost as if the bizarre is part of life. His characters do not break walls when they step into the imagined or actual past, or in and out of their own minds. That’s classic Andrey Kurkov – effortlessly mixing mundane stuff of Ukrainian daily life like home-brewed Vodka, Salami and salted cucumbers, with surreal elements from thrillers and sci-fi.
Igor, an unemployed, 28-year old, lives with his mum in Irpen, a suburb of Kiev. A 65-year old gardener, Stepan, starts living in their shed. Soon it is revealed that his left upper arm bears dark blue marks of a blurred tattoo. With the assistance of his childhood friend Kolyan, Igor deciphers the message, which turns to be the address of a house in Ochakov, located in Odessa, on the Black Sea. Curiosity takes Stepan and Igor to Ochakov, where they sneak into the house mentioned in the tattoo, and stumble upon treasure of sorts- The Book of Food and a large number of crystals in one trunk, five gold watches plus emerald and gold items in another, and a police uniform, including a cap and a holstered gun in the third. The duo brings these goodies home, and Stepan sets about rebuilding his life.
Igor is gifted a golden watch, the uniform and the gun, along with some Soviet and Ukrainian money by Stepan. One late evening, Igor, heavily drunk on brandy, puts on the Soviet uniform and while walking to nearby Irpen bus station, realizes that he has stepped into Ochakov of 1957. Kurkov’s characters don’t fuss or raise alarm at such leaps, rather take them in the stride. Once in Ochakov, Igor befriends Vanya, a wine worker from the O. Wine Factory, lodges himself at his home and begins exploring the town.
From thereon, it becomes a story of time travel. Igor travels to and fro between Irpen and Kiev of 2010, and Ochakov of 1957, and gets to understand the life and times of Stepan’s father in the Soviet-era Ukraine. He asks Vanya to click photographs, samples wine, falls in love with a redhead fishmonger, brings back fresh flounders and gobies for his mum to cook, and in process, manages to pick a deadly feud with a notorious local thief. Meanwhile, his buddy, Kolyan, a computer expert, falls foul of some wrong kind of people by hacking into their email accounts. They hanker after his blood, and Kolyan comes and hides in Igor’s house.
Stepan, the gardener, rebuilds his life, buys two houses, calls over his daughter to live with him, asks Igor’s mum to marry him, opens a café, and appoints Igor as its sous chef. Igor goes back to the Ochakov for one last time to tie some loose ends, and then sends Kolyan to hide in the past. Meanwhile, Vanya’s photographs captured in 1957 become raging hits in the present time.
The Book of Food was written by Stepan’s father, a dissident, who was sent to hard labour for criticizing the Western food served in Soviet canteens. He had argued in The Book of Food that eating the food of the enemy turned one into a slave. As per the Book of Food, people could be divided into two categories, according to the way they naturally relate to the world around them- Gardeners and Foresters. Gardeners essentially see the world as a garden in which it is their responsibility to behave appropriately, to fix whatever is broken, and to keep order. The foresters prefer an uncultivated environment. They are more inclined to break things and live in disorder than to build, renovate or repair. Foresters are more ruthless, but they are also more robust and stronger. Foresters understand that it is not possible to improve the world, whereas Gardeners are forever trying to improve things. Men are generally foresters, women are gardeners, but exceptions do exist. The world has so far been spared from devastation because Foresters and Gardeners frequently enter into marriages, thereby creating unnatural but stable unions.
The author hints that both the time travellers had suffered from close-head injuries – Igor had met with an accident when he was a child, and Kolyan when he was attacked by his enemies. Does Kurkov hint that the time travel was just a ‘film’ which ran in injured heads after copious consumption of brandy and dry white wine?
The novel is leaden with satirical nostalgia for the Communist past. A Bar in Kiev keeps retro fancy dress for a chance to win a guided trip to North Korea, a holiday to Cuba or an excursion to Moscow, including a night visit to the Lenin mausoleum. There is public craze, maybe even wistfulness, for all things Soviet. Large Rouble notes, smart police uniforms, law and order- must have been glorious times, despite lack of freedom and choices! “The uniform and the boots represent the past, and the past changes its shape and size to fit whoever tries it on.” References are drawn to post-war anti-Semitism, as well as presence of bandits, which the ‘people of 1957’ hope would vanish with time, but Igor knows better. “Things change for worse…”
Kurkov keeps the narrative simple and plot uncomplicated, and never grows much too philosophical or heavy like old Russian masters. There are shades of Chekhov in his observations regarding the ordinary life, but he is certainly not out to overwhelm like Dostoevsky or Bulgakov. The novel was published in Russian in 2010, and translated into English in 2013, and is quite a breezy read.
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