In my review of Juame Cabre’s outstanding Confessions, I mentioned that the novel gave me my first “book hangover.” I tried numerous times to start something fresh but could not get beyond a first paragraph.
So I turned to a book I’d been itching to read for some time from an author whose work I’d grown to love: The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov.
Kurkov is perhaps best known for his 2001 work Death and the Penguin and its follow up Penguin Lost (I read these both as one piece in the collected ‘Penguin Novels’). These books bought him attention and comparisons aplenty. From Murakami to a modern-day Bulgakov. Subsequent novels expanded the canvas and character range yet met with a more muted response. But, let’s be honest, they’re asking too much. Even Bulgakov didn’t always hit the marks he hit in his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. Such tags are akin to branding any musician who appears with an acoustic guitar and a wordy hit as “the new Dylan”.
It’s inevitable, then, that those same critics will find fault in his subsequent work.
There are traits that you’ll find in the works of both authors but then you’ll find them in the works of many others, too: there’s an abundance of dark humour, satire, surrealism and the occasional talking animal and each can have a distinctly Soviet reference point – writing of times and people bound by communism and, later, the Iron Curtain and it’s echoes. Both are very much a joy to read too. Kurkov’s works are lighter (this isn’t meant as a negative in any way) and hugely accessible.
Perhaps the difference is that Bulgakov wrote at a time when the new oppressive rule of Russia was relatively fresh. Memories of a time pre civil-war highlighted the hardships the population was under. Kurkov’s novels are set in a post Iron Curtain world where the inhabitants of his story are coming to terms with the echoes of that time against the inbound surge of capitalism
From my point of view, there’s nothing “patchy” about his work since the Penguin books. I’ll go so far as to say The President’s Last Love is not only his best work to date but will stand up in my own Top Ten – a hugely original story with remarkable pacing and narrative structure and its mix of humour, tragedy and sublime absurdity is akin to that of an Eastern European DeBernieres.
His previous novel, The Milkman In The Night, was another tightly bound fantastical work with a plot involving a sleepwalker, a sniffer-dog, theft, a woman selling her breast milk, psychotic cats and, of course, plenty of misunderstandings.
The Gardener from Ochakov is another equally cracking read. Just read the back jacket:
What’s contained within these pages is a light-hearted, time travelling adventure with Kurkov’s patent and potent mix of realism and fantasy (though no animals in this one), with thrilling drama mixing deftly with the mundane details of life.
There’s also a satirical nod to those that idealise the past under Communist, Soviet rule – those that will say, with a shrug, things like “ah yes but everybody had a job then”.
Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.