Book Review: Andrey Kurkov


First of all I have to apologise for the misleading title. I am not going to talk about Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov nor am I going to review one of his books.

I am fascinated by Eastern Europe, I’ve visited all those countries except the ones that really matter to me (Russia and Ukraine). Instead I do read their authors’ novels which probably come 2nd in my reading list right behind Algerian ones.

Kurkov is one of my favourites. I feel I know many of Kiev’s streets just because of the description he made in his novels. But I do not like Kurkov only because of his writing style and his black humour. I do love his novels because they remind me of my own country, Algeria. Post-Soviet Ukraine is indeed very close to today’s Algeria and it’s easy to draw a comparison line between the Ukrainian way of life, youths, politicians, journalists, oligarchs, etc. and their Algerian counterparts.

In Kurkov’s latest novel, the Milkman in the Night – which by the way is not his best, the author relates more absurd stories. These tales, which are less absurd than the ones he related in his previous novels, include one which I want to share here.

A single mother of a three-month-old baby is so poor that she sells her breast milk  in a special salon instead of giving it to her baby. Apparently in Ukraine rich people do, or used to, buy breast milk to give it to their babies when they don’t have milk themselves or because they think the milk they buy is of a better quality. But when the young woman decides to find out about the baby who’s having hers, we discover that her milk is given to some oligarch/politician who bathes in it to preserve his looks and chances to be re-elected. Her salary is even increased and she’s driven from and to her house in a black Mercedes when she decides to “retire” because the client doesn’t want any other milk for his skin.

When I read Kurkov, I cannot but think why the heck do we not have a writer like him? The situations are the same, the issues are the same, but our authors choose to be such a sad ones and deprive us from laughing. You read a recent Algerian novel and you feel like you are reading the newspaper and you are depressed. Where is this self-derision that is so present in the Algerian streets? Why is satire rarely used?

If some writer out there reads this, please stop and go write something less depressing for us to read!

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Andrey Kurkov

  1. I hope Yasmina Khadra and the multitude of DRS/Algerian army/GIA/FIS/Insert-controversial-entity’s-name-of-your-choice-here deserters who now live in ‘exile’ in France wa dawahi’ha read this post before publishing the usual tripe or making the usual -Yawn, Yawn, Yawn- statements on telly.

    I remember one guy who appeared on Al Jazeera a while ago to basically ‘testify’ that the Algerian army or highly ranked elements therein were giving orders to kill civilians during terrorism years. He was going on about how the honorable men all deserted or preferred to die rather than be part of this and the presenter asked him: “So you weren’t a honorable man then?” – which was excatly the question I asked mentally. I mean, he obviously made it and was still alive and slagging off the army on a huge-audimat TV channel, so what are we to infer on what he did when he was still with them? [I might not have reported the exact words verbatim but this is the essence of what I remember. The video must be on YouTube somewhere, in Arabic though]

    • Hehe. And those who say they were high ranking officers say they never gave any order (but knew others did) and those who were simple soldiers/agents, well they were lucky they never had to do anything because there were others to do the dirty job… But since some listen to them, some others believe them…

      Khadra is a different type though but I don’t want to get started on him. His writing style is the only thing I like about him, but even this, islamists in DZ, islamists in Baghdad, islamists in Palestine, islamists in Afghanistan, well that is too much fr me.

  2. At first I did not know this author, I don’t know what kind of book he wrote. As against the Russian literature is something else … she is not happy at all.

    I personally don’t like reading happy novels written “à l’eau de rose.”
    The book must give me the urge to commit suicide. It has to describ me
    the joy in suffering, the pain inflicted by life, the absurdity of existence … short, it must be beautiful and sad in the same time, you should not cry at the end of the book …. but vomit.

    So I don’t agree with your call to the authors, to write something less depressing. Tolstoï said that you should write only when you dips your pen in the ink, you let a piece of your flesh is in the ink. (or on the keyboard)🙂.

    • The Matrix, the way you describe the kind of novels you like is interesting🙂

      I don’t like a l’eau-de-rose novels either. I just want Algerian novels to look less like the newspapers and display a little more creativity…

      As to Kurkov, I do really recommend you read “Le pinguin” and “Les pinguins n’ont jamais froid”. I am sure you’ll like them and you’ll want to read the rest of his work.

      Update:
      The Guardian’s review of “Death and the Penguin” (le pinguin in french) and “Penguin lost” (les pinguins n’ont jamais froid).

      • Thank you MnarviDZ for the titles of books, I would add that to my very long “to read list”

        And for :

        I just want Algerian novels to look less like the newspapers and display a little more creativity…

        I quite agree with you, specially for El-Choror😉

  3. Have you read Mustapha Benfodil’s “Archeologie du chaos amoureux?” I read it partially and it was quite funny/satirical in its tone. A long time ago I enjoyed the humor of Akli Tadjer’s “Les A.N.I. du Tassili”. But overall your observation stands. Algerian authors are often depressing “realists”. I wonder if they are afraid of appearing too frivolous were they to write otherwise. My other observation, at least for some of those writing in French, is that their writing is too stuffy. They use a heavy, repetitive language that turns me off.

    • No I haven’t read them. I think I read somewhere that 3/4 of Benfodil’s book was discarded by El Barzakh because “too trashy”…

      I don’t know about frivolity; using satire and humour does in no way make the novel less serious/valuable, in my opinion at least.

      I agree on your remark on the too heavy language. And I make the exact opposite remark on those writing in Arabic, it’s so light and you feel you’re reading ElKhabar. But this is not surprising as many authors are/were journalists and it’s a general trend in all the Arab world.

  4. I love Russian literature classics but have no idea of modern ones as I dont’ have a clue of what is published by local editors now in Algeria.
    The kind of humor that algerians used to have especially in the cinema was very influenced by the defunct italian cinema of 50-60-70s. Laugh to tears of absurdity, misery from a very realistic point of view like in Omar gatlato… May be in the 90’s laughing became so obscene that algerians lost their sense of humor… which is a pity.

    Anyway, what I read on “the penguin” on the internet led me to click on the appropriate button on the Amazon page.

    • You may be right QatKhal on how obscene laughing became in the 90s. But there could have been some forms of expression other than the very realistic one that DZCalling mentioned above. And It’s not about saying “ma adjmala eldjawwa houna”, this is the ENTV’s task which was doing marvellously well ignoring the “national tragedy”.

      Glad to hear you ordered the book, hope you’ll like it🙂

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