Book review: The Milkman in the Night by Andrey Kurkov
WHEN darkness falls Semyon rises. He sleep-walks the silent streets of Kiev, spending time with a mystery 30-year old plain-faced blonde, returning home to find upon waking the tell-tale signs of his unremembered nocturnal adventures. His wife, Veronika, is distraught, and disbelieving when Semyon tells her he cannot explain the dirt on his clothing. One night his clothes are smeared with blood.
Dima, the airport guard, lives with the superstitious Valya, Fluffy, their cat and Dima's sniffer-dog, which detects a mystery substance in a suitcase at the airport. Dima decides to filch the contents.
Meanwhile, each morning from a small village outside the city comes Irina, a single mum-cum-stupendous-wet-nurse, disgorging breast milk for a pittance, after which it is sold for big bucks and "chauffeur driven in a black Mercedes" like liquid gold to its eager new owner. In the post-Soviet Ukraine, and in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, capitalists prosper at every turn.
Significant among them, Gennady Ilyich, a politician, is on the rise. He buys influence - and people - he is both generous and ruthless, and on the hunt for opportunities. Opportunism too is Dima's stock in trade. He plans to sell the mystery drugs. Meanwhile the maker of that drug, a well-known pharmacist, is found knifed in the backstreets of Kiev at dead of night. His eccentric widow keeps his body propped like an ornament in an armchair. "Yes. The armchair would be good," she thinks, but first she must check the Feng Shui.
It's a cryptic joke, for nothing much points in the right direction in Andrey Kurkov' off-kilter new novel. His typical storylines head towards zig but end up at zag. And Kurkov's storylines are, by definition, untypical. Here, the exception is the "rescue" of Irina by her knight in a red shining Mazda. His name is Egor, catching perfectly Egor's ardour. Their tale ends exactly where it points from the beginning.
The other ten storylines are neatly crafted jigsaws, dropped one by one from the height of nonsense to shatter and catapult their pieces into and through each others' crazed patterns. The accruing, resulting novel is rarely predictable, never picturesque, never dull.
Bits of the widow's story clutter the background of Semyon's tale, and Veronika's. Irina's fortunes turn out to be linked to the covert activities of Gennady, who in turn gives a job to Semyon, a security apparatchik who works with Volodka.
Keen to prove his nocturnal ramblings have not been placing him in danger, Semyon asks Volodka to follow him, little knowing that someone else is keenly tracking his every move.To keep the reader on his/her toes, Kurkov calls this tracker Igor, who, like Egor, is in also thrall to a strong-minded woman - namely Semyon's wife - who believes her husband may be the killer of the pharmacist; why else the night-time blood on Semyon's clothes?
The book is a joyride in which the joyless mix with the fearful, the crazy, the paranoid, not to mention some innocent jetsam (Irina's mother; Dima's dog which barks its last; and a plump professor seeking Irina's black-market milk to nourish his child.).
Kurkov, conscious of the complexities of his plotting, shrewdly dices his burgeoning narratives into 119 terse, digestible segments, which duly provides him with opportunities to nudge and tweak the evolution of his characters' adventures.
His few lyrical diversions exist to fuel scenes with atmosphere, not embellishment. Thus the novel begins sotto voce: "Deprived of human attention, the lonely Milky Way was languishing in the winter sky… Not a single dog was barking, as though the low, starry sky had somehow sedated them all." The almost breath-held portent of that opening hangs in the balance as Irina makes her own quiet "milky way" in the wee small hours towards her date with kismet.
Nearly 500 pages later, the book ends similarly with portent, plus a late shot at domestic bliss for a raft of its characters, after an exorcism of sorts. In between there are several killings, (one by a crazed domestic pet), an attempted suicide, baby trafficking and a wedding. Kurkov has a roller coaster of fun between zig and zag. He defies the reader not to join him.
• Andrey Kirkov is at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26 August.