Wednesday, 11 November 2009

81 - 'The President's Last Love' by Andrey Kurkov

As mentioned in an earlier post, I came across this book at a campus book sale a while back, and it has been sitting patiently on my Russian/Chinese shelf for the past two-and-a-bit months, waiting for me to get around to reading it. I now have absolutely no idea where I got good vibes about the work of Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian author who writes about his home country (but in Russian), but it must have been somewhere I trust as I had no hesitation in snapping up this novel when I spotted it.

The story follows the life of Sergey Pavlovich Bunin, by 2013 President of Ukraine, through three different stages of his life: as a young man drifting through the last days of the Soviet era and the first of his country's new found independence; as a successful government official attempting to start a family; and, finally, as a President recovering after an operation to insert a new heart. Nothing unusual there, you might think - you'd be wrong...

For starters, these three stories are not told consecutively, but simultaneously. The book consists of over 215 chapters, each lasting a page or two, most of which tell Bunin's story in alternating sequence. Thus, in the space of a few pages, the reader will see Bunin sleeping off an alcohol-induced rush in a Kiev police cell, flying off to Switzerland with his wife, his (mentally-ill) brother and his (equally mentally-ill) wife, and attempting to run the country with the help (or hindrance) of his manic and, quite possibly, suspicious assistant Nikolai Lvovich. Got all that? It takes a while to get your head around the constant flicking back and forth through time, but once you do, it helps to create a complete picture of the President and how he came to make it that far.

The book centres on Bunin's heart transplant and the problems it causes. Little by little, strange details are revealed about the procedure, an operation which seems to have been carried out with ulterior motives behind it. However, this cat-and-mouse detective story is merely a bizarre and humorous backdrop to the sketching out of a public life lived behind (and after) the Iron Curtain.

In the first strand, we follow Bunin through the streets of Kiev, drifting (but with nowhere to go), numbing the boredom of his days with copious amounts of alcohol and attempting to deal with the petty bureaucracy, widespread corruption and accommodation issues which plagued the communist world. In the second, Bunin must now walk the tightrope which is the lot of all ambitious politicians in democracies which are not quite living up to their names. In addition to attempting to balance private and public spheres, he has to negotiate the tricky playing field of corruption and bribery while keeping as clean as possible. By the final strand, having been elected as President, his standing seems safe, and he is, literally, master of all he surveys. However, the stress he experiences forces him to seek peace anywhere he can find it (including his nice big bathroom) and to look back and wonder if it was all worth it.

Bunin is a likeable character, a very sociable drinker (by Eastern European standards - by Western measures, he'd be off to rehab), a man who looked for success and love and only really found one. It's a pleasure to read about his alcohol-fuelled escapades and attempts to subdue his presidential staff (and locate his stolen Ottoman couch). Having said all that, this book fell between two stools for me. The writing was good, but not extraordinarily special while the plot was interesting, but not intriguing enough to carry the reader's attention for the whole journey. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through, I thought the story was about to take a whole new direction - only to be disappointed when the resolution turned out to be less intricate than (and nowhere near as exciting as) the one in my head. Where this book works best is when concentrating on the pathos of Bunin's lonely life at the top. The image of a national leader reduced to snatching five minutes of privacy in his bathroom, drinking whiskey while gazing out of his window at the fog-enveloped monuments of his national capital is the one I will take from this book.

In short, this didn't quite hit the spot but would be, nevertheless, a very enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in matters Eastern European, slightly left of centre, or just soaked in vodka. I hope that makes sense... I'd like to read Kurkov's most famous novel now - 'Death and the Penguin' -, mainly because I don't think there are enough good novels starring penguins, and I am assured that the penguin has a major role in this one.

I'll keep you posted.