Andrey Kurkov is a practitioner of the absurd, deploying humour to grease the cogs of his clever but sometimes improbable plotlines.
The Gardener From Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov
Harvill Secker, 314Pp, £12.99
They don’t so much spin at dizzying speed as click with determined inexorability, grinding events into a sherbet of sparkling moments that make you savour your own disbelief.
He is not the first writer to dream up a hero of modest attributes accidentally transformed into a figure of authority by donning fancy dress uniform (read Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Kopenick), but Kurkov sends his hero, Igor, trussed in epaulettes and boots, across 50 years, back to the maw of Soviet rule.
This transformative event is 60 pages in the making. Kurkov entertains his readers in the lead-up by creating a plausible mystery. A tattoo, blurred over time, has been etched since childhood on the shoulder of Stepan Sadovnikov, the gardener of the title. Stepan has come to the small town of Irpen to work for Elena Andreevna, Igor’s mother, and it is Igor’s friend, the computer hacker Kolyan, who “cleans” a photo of the tattoo, revealing its message: “Ochakov, 1957, Efim Chagin’s House”.
Curiosity leads Stepan (with Igor in tow), back to Ochakov on the Black Sea, to discover his roots and to find the Chagin’s House. Chagin, it turns out, was the town’s biggest criminal whose house was a “drop” for dodgy goods before he was knifed to death – in 1957.
The house, now an office block, harbours its booty – several suitcases wedged in a cavity – found with ease by Stepan and Igor who lug their trove straight back to Irpen. A fistful of diamonds, a handwritten book, an old gold watch and a Soviet uniform, complete with police ID and a loaded revolver, lie spread before them.
Stepan cashes in the diamonds, gives Igor the uniform and the watch which no longer works. Kolyan invites him to a birthday party, a retro-affair. Igor dons the policeman’s uniform and the plot moves into deeper, darker territory.
As Igor swaggers forth in his boots, the night closes round him, the gold watch suddenly leaps to life, the pinpricks of lights far in front of him become factory lamps, and a man who catches sight of him freezes with fear. He is dressed in the uniform of oppression.
Of course, it’s astounding, if not preposterous, that a man however dressed can step from post-liberation Ukraine in the 21st century back to the darks after Stalin’s death. Igor’s ignorance of history helps him immerse himself in the new reality, and he makes the acquaintance of Vanya, a youthful thief, who assists him in placing Chagin’s house under surveillance, taking photos of frequent visitors.
Igor’s motives are somewhat unclear, but then he encounters sparky, mischievous Red Valya, a beautiful fish-seller in the market and is smitten. Valya, though married, yields to his ardour, aware that Chagin too seeks her favour. A confrontation seems predestined.
The book’s 1950s segments have focus, dramatic tension and a delicious moral sharpness that the Irpen sequences lack. Igor discovers by simply removing his policeman’s garb and going to sleep he will wake up again at Elena’s, with no-one aware of where he has been.
The reader readily swallows, all of this, as Chagin’s threat and Valya’s encouragement, combined with Vanya’s clandestine, revealing photographs of an era often portrayed in black and white, make for enticement, providing Igor’s life with colour. Who are the suspects at Chagin’s door? Will Stepan’s father be among them? Will Valya and Igor one day elope?
Then Kurkov redirects the narrative, nudging Igor towards Alyona, Stepan’s daughter, throwing light on Igor’s friend Kolyan whose life becomes threatened after he hacks the wrong kind of emails. Igor plans his friend’s escape.
The ingenious plot-twist at the finale evokes mixed feelings. While one admires its execution, and its tie-in with the facts of Igor and Stepan’s earlier foray to modern Ochakov, its anti-climax leaves disappointment. Kurkov masters the details superbly, writes with constant consummate wit and soufflé lightness. He entertains even as he deflates. A perverse kind of genius.
Andrey Kurkov is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 10 August