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4.4 out of 5 stars
13
The President's Last Love
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on 2 January 2009
Kurkov's previous books have been short and simple, and usually based around one quirky premise. I was wondering what he would do with a much bigger book. The answer is that this is basically three such stories woven together around the same character.

Written a little like diary entries, the novel flits between Bunin as the beleaguered president of Ukraine in 2016, and his earlier years as a student, or as a deputy minister. Some might find the cutting back and forth a little irritating. I thought it was quite effective. Each era has its own key characters and surreal elements, contributing their own aspects to the overall portrait and building well towards the final conclusion.

Fans of Kurkhov will find much they recognise - the seedy underbelly of Ukrainian society, a listless, unemployed protagonist, the regular quaffing of vodka - but this reaches further than any of his previous novels. It has a new breadth and depth, and Bunin feels like a much better developed, more complex character. And so he should be, with 40 years and 440 pages to play with. Kurkhov still can't write a decent female character unfortunately, the several here all being as capricious as any of those in his earlier works. That remains his only real weakness, in my opinion.

If you haven't read Kurkhov before, Death and the Penguin is still the place to start, but read this second. You'll find it funny, moving, and memorably unique.
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on 16 October 2011
A fantastic novel!
Structured in what at first is a slightly disconcerting way; short chapters set in different years, meeting Sergey Pavlovich at different times in his life. Once I had settled in to this style I was hooked.
The novel is very sad and dark, so many tragic things happen to Sergey. He suffers, but not in an introspective, emotional way. He deals with this suffering by drinking and taking cold baths.
There is, of course, lots of humour and bizarre tales, but over-all a tale of a lonely man.
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on 31 August 2007
Ukrainian President Sergey Bunin wakes from heart transplant surgery to find his country careering absurdly out of control: an oligarch is threatening to cut the nation's electricity supply, giant Vatican recognised miracle potatoes are sprouting in the east and, to make matters worse, a crazed widow is demanding visitation rights to her deceased husband's heart. It is just another day in the life of a president. But Bunin hates this life; all he wants is to go ice swimming with his friends. The question arises: how did he ever become president?

The President's Last Love chronicles Bunin's dubious rise up the political ladder, from catering college and failed romance to tragedy and the birth of a political career. But as he lives and loves it becomes apparent that there are some things beyond even the power of spin to remedy. The heart, you see, is not a potato. Kurkov is a wonderful writer, humane and hilarious, and this may be even better than Death and the Penguin. Read it; you are in for a treat.
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VINE VOICEon 19 April 2009
After reading 'Death and the Penguin' by Kurkov, I was compelled to go out and buy another of his books. I have to admit, I didn't even read the blurb - I just paid! And I did great - this book makes for compulsive reading! Following the main character Sergey Pavlovich through 3 eras of his life simultaneously, it's a little like being on a rollercoaster at times, and it's pretty damn hard to put down - there are not many points at which you think, 'well OK I can wait a little while to find out what happens next'. If you've read and enjoyed anything by Russian or Ukrainian authors, then I highly recommend Kurkov - he writes in the wonderfully absurd and satirical style that seems peculiar to that part of the world, and he does it really well. One of my top 5 authors at the moment!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 20 October 2011
Written in 2004 from the standpoint of 2016, this novel has turned-out remarkably prophetic, not least in that the Ukrainian president elected in 2004 proved to be a one-term president; that his successor (elected 2010) attempts to maintain and defend some middle ground between Russia and the west; and that Vladimir Putin will return in 2012 to the Russian presidency that he vacated in 2008.

Well, OK, with hindsight much of that perhaps wasn't too hard to predict, and may have been easier before the Orange Revolution than in the few glorious months of optimism that followed it. But I am still impressed by this lament of Kurkov's 2016 President, Sergei Pavlovich Bunin; "There was my spinning top of a country, reeling west one minute, east the next, and nothing I could do about it."

Bunin was an insignificant figure in business and politics until he happened to be in the right place at the right time and it suited powerful interests for him to be elevated to the presidency. On the way up, Bunin found particularly useful the experience and contacts made whilst once serving 21 days in Kiev's police cells on a very minor, essentially trumped-up charge. Clearly, no linkage with the current President, Viktor Yanukovich, is intended; Yanukovich has a much more substantial criminal record.

Also unlike Yanukovich, President Bunin had by 2016 been through three marriages, and in 2015 was found to require a heart transplant, something we have no reason to suspect of Yanukovich. The marriages and some other romantic hits and near-misses are central to the novel. The adage quoted by Kurkov, "A man loves and is truly loved only twice, the first time and the last", goes some way to explain the title.

The novel flits between various points in Bunin's life from 1975, when he was 14 years old, to the 2016 'present'. Those points are the highlights in terms of relations with his mother and twin brother; his brush with the police; his marriages and other assignations. The years 1988, 2003, 2013 and 2015 feature particularly strongly, giving us a perspective on Ukraine's development from Soviet times, through independence, to the now not so distant future.

Much potential confusion is avoided through each of 215 short sections being clearly marked with date and place. Nevertheless, it becomes irritating to be so frequently moved back and forth in time. One yearns for a simple re-ordering of the sections on the basis of timescale, though that wouldn't work too well either, as the climax of the overall story is dependent on those of at least some of the component parts being withheld until almost the end of the book.

So that's the weakness of this novel, inherent in its structure. Its strengths - as ever with Kurkov - lie in its realistic portrayal of Ukraine, Ukrainians, and their daily lives. I read the book whilst staying in Ukraine, meeting old and new friends in higher education, the arts and local government, and catching up with current news and politics. At times I found myself struggling to distinguish between absurd situations created by Kurkov and real-life absurdities such as the enforced closure of an opposition TV station on environmental and sanitary grounds; almost all in public positions changing their advertised allegiance from the party of Yulia Timoshenko to that of the President (the Vice Prime Minister and possible future President Sergei Tihipko abandoning his personal party to also join the President's party); and an 'ironic' demonstration protesting the poor pay and conditions of those forlornly parading banners supporting one side or the other on the Timoshenko trial and imprisonment issue - underlining that neither side of that apparent blossom of free speech and democracy would be well supported were it not that the demonstrators were being paid, albeit pitifully little. Some of Kurkov's inventions are just a little more unlikely, but not a lot. His observation that "Where there are dollars, morality and justice evaporate" remains oh so true. His presidential character says he first learned that in Soviet times.
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on 1 April 2012
Andrey Kurkov is one of those writers I keep forgetting about and then re-discovering. I first encountered him work with Death And The Penguin
several years ago but since reading that and its sequel (Penguin Lost) I forgot about him until I read about him in The Complete Polysylabbic Spree, which led me to reading A Matter of Death and Life. After reading that I vowed not to forget him, but it wasn't until I saw some of his books on display in Waterstones that I remembered my vow. I immediately bought this book and added a few more to my wishlist.
I really do not know why I keep forgetting Kurkov, I always enjoy his books. They tend to be easy to read but there is a certain strangeness to them that makes you feel like you have something to puzzle out.

I would say I prefer the Penguin books over this one, just because of the character of the penguin himself, and the main character's relationship with him (which is probably reflected in the fact that I remember the penguin's name, but not that of his owner). I did find I had a little confusion when switching between chapters (each of which were focused on one of 3 periods in the president's (Bunin's) life) and working out where I was in relation to other chapters, especially as each individual story got more complex. I also had a little trouble distinguishing the women in his life from one another, especially when they overlapped into each others time frames.
You could probably make three novellas from this book as it was like three stories in one but I kind of liked reading them alongside each other and it was clever how sometimes something from one time frame would explain something in another. However I did want some of the stories to carry on as I was interested to see how Bunin got to where he was in the last timeline.

Certainly a good read, and fairly easy, but if you have never encountered Kurkov before I would recommend Death and the Penguin as a better starting point
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on 18 November 2012
A brilliant book. I preferred this to Death and the Penguin; the characters were more likable, and the story was painted on a broader canvas. Very amusing in places, sad in others. Quite a mix of themes: love and friendship, trust, bizarre political intrigue, national loyalty. Also, some interesting and strange plot twists. The narrative was split into three time zones which progressed in alternate chapters: there was the main character's youth in the late 80s/early 90s, a period in the mid 2000s, and a period from 2013-2016. Some reviewers have complained about this, but I found it easy to get on with - in fact it was very easy to read (credit probably due to the translator here too). Great book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 October 2007
"Conjures up both Gogol and Dostoevsky" gushes the blurb on the cover. Really? I found this novel both irritating and frequently tedious, and would have given it up long before the end if I did not suffer from the compulsion to finish almost any book I have started. Perhaps that is just as well, since the second half of the book is better than the first.

This is the story, told in the first person, of Sergey Pavlovich Bunin, born in the Soviet Union in 1961, who progresses from being an unemployed youth to becoming the President of the post-Soviet Ukraine. The steps by which this happens are not explained. In 1987 he works at a restaurant for high-up apparatchiks. In 1992 a patron has him promoted to an `extra-governmental' post fostering Private Enterprise. By 2003 he is a Deputy Minister without any explanation of how he got there. By 2013 he is President - ditto.

There are references to oligarchs; to corruption (the Ukrainian Parliament has spent three years debating `how many categories of corruption there should be, which of them should be punishable and which should be considered a part of everyday culture, a tribute to tradition'); the revival of the Church (which, weirdly, has commandeered Lenin and proclaimed him St Vladimir!); pressure applied over the the power supply; deals with Putin's Russia (Putin is still President of Russia in 2013); the President being plotted against by his Prime Minister - but the intended satire is mostly heavy-handed.

What makes the book so irritating is that the 215 short chapters, each dated, each with lots of dialogue in short sentences and much inconsequential detail, continuously dart backwards and forwards from around 1983, when he is 22 years old and marries and divorces the first of his four wives, to 2016, the year after the President has undergone - with some curious consequences - a heart-transplant. I can't see the point of this device: the story could have been told perfectly well and less confusingly in chronological order; and I, for one, had to keep a chart by my side to remind myself what he was doing and to which wife he was married in 1983, 1992, 2003, 2006, 2013, 2015 etc.

What ultimately saved the book for me were the various subplots: one about Sergey's relationship with his mother and his mentally somewhat backward brother; one about the father of Sergey's second wife; scenes in a maternity hospital. These have nothing to do with politics; they are actually more important to Sergey than politics, in which he seems to be the passive instrument of his aide and of his head of security. They show that Sergey has a heart; and they are at times quite affecting.
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on 22 November 2015
Just a big fan of Andrey Kurkov, great characters, an amusing style of creating scenes in flash back and just not quite giving us enough information to solve the inner conflicts of the main character before darting away to another time and another place, a rich picture of life in post Soviet Russia.
I kind of wish it could be made into a film just to see how it would be cast, very droll in parts and also poignant. A great read.
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on 26 September 2013
This is very different from the "penguin" books but still characteristically Kurkov. The storyline covering three timelines takes a while to get into but once the sequencing becomes clear it is a book that you won't want to put down. Like all the best books this is one that I look forward to reading a second time.
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