Nov 11

Serendipity and Mr Kurkov

When I travel I read more serendipitously and randomly, wandering off the path I normally take through newspapers and magazines. And as I sat in trains and planes, I fell across this piece from the New York Times by Andrey Kurkov.

I sat up immediately because I had never before seen any journalism by Kurkov, who I know only as a novelist. He is Ukrainian and his debut novel Death and the Penguin deserves to be more widely celebrated as a small comic masterpiece. In the course of a short, spare novel about a man who makes friends with a penguin who has wandered out of an untended zoo, Kurkov manages to say more about the bleak reality of post-communist societies than a dozen textbooks. The tone is quirky and ironic; Kurkov belongs on the same literary shelf as Bulgakov. There are other novels: I recommend A Matter of Life and Death, which in the course of a meandering story about an obituary writer manages to speak powerfully about a corrupted state.

And so with his New York Times piece. The gentle irony and local detail are deceptive (“The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 brought great joy to my family”). His conclusions about law and public honesty apply well beyond his own country. Indeed they could apply to Italy, where I happened to be when I read it. The government was just falling in Rome.