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Where there are dollars, morality and justice evaporate
on 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.