Having read and very much enjoyed Andrey Kurkov's latest novel to be translated into English, The Milkman in the Night
, I decided to catch-up on those of his novels that I had not yet read; The Good Angel of Death was one of them.
Like most of Kurkov's work, The Good Angel of Death is a thriller that, whilst not taking itself too seriously, conveys much that is true about today's Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Besides Ukraine, it is set in a number of the wilder former Soviet countries, including Astrakhan and Kazakhstan, and on a fish-packing factory ship on the Caspian Sea. Following death threats from criminals intent on stealing hallucinatory drugs with which he has a chance connection, the hero, Kolya, leaves Kiev in a hurry. His destination is not random, but is related to Ukraine's national poet, Taras Shevchenko, and some papers Kolya steals from a grave. After a long series of adventures that are variously life-threatening, hair-raising and surreal, Kolya finds what he is looking for and returns to a Ukraine obligingly made safe for him by officers - or perhaps they are former officers - of the SBU, Ukraine's successor organisation to the KGB. At all stages on the long, circular journey, we as readers gain much in the way of local colour, albeit that in some instances that colour is realistically drab.
Ever since Death And The Penguin
, Kurkov novels have usually involved an animal or two, often exotic. With an enigmatic but remarkably tenacious chameleon and a she camel that saves Kolya's life, The Good Angel of Death is no exception.
Those are the best aspects of the novel. However, as a first person account of a long journey, the first half of which is undertaken by Kolya alone, the book is singularly lacking in dialogue and alternative points of view, and the first hundred pages or so consist of nothing but a hurried account, delivered in very flat prose, of some under-motivated and frankly unbelievable events such as the grave robbery. When, on page 156, we find a chapter describing the images and perceptions that pass through the mind of a drugged SBU colonel, it comes as a considerable surprise, if not actually a relief.
We are also treated to the odd philosophical insight, such as that the punishment of prison, properly conceived, is the separation of a man from his customary rituals. In the context of several of the countries visited in this novel, that is a strikingly liberal and humane point of view. But the odd remark on those lines is insufficient to redeem the many long stretches of narrative where the words never achieve lift-off from the page.
The good angel of death, incidentally - purportedly according to Kazakh legend - takes the form of a woman who follows a solitary traveller. If she decides she doesn't like him, she sends a scorpion and the traveller dies; if she likes him she sends a chameleon, which brings good luck. As already noted, the chameleon that adopts Kolya is enigmatic but tenacious.