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Good reading for naïve optimists

Good reading for naïve optimists

by Sean O'Toole / 22.01.2010

We – that is you, me and a bunch of other people we don’t know – like to measure our mood in numbers. Percentages to be exact. At least that’s the view of political commentators and others who glean the approval ratings for ideas of how you, me and a bunch of other people behave mentally on any given day. For Americans, in particular, the numbers contained in presidential approval ratings are at once magical and scientific. Foolproof nonsense, in other words.

According to latest polls, Barack Obama’s stock is way down, so much so that only one in two Americans are now said to think positively of him. A year ago it was two in three. British PM Gordon Brown will no doubt sympathise: the Ice Age came early for him. Jacob Zuma, whose popularity has spiked since he made a solemn commitment to the nation on a rainy day last year, must secretly be frowning. After all, Viktor Yushchenko, whose disfigured face – poisoned by rivals, some say – was the emblem of hope at the time of Ukraine’s 2004’s orange revolution, polled only 5% of the national vote in that country’s first round presidential vote last week.

The Ukraine can seem far away – it neighbours Romania in the south, Russia at north, and Poland, Slovakia and Hungary on its western borders, just in case you sat next to Julius Malema at school. In many ways this confused republic could however easily be another province in the land Jeremy Maggs reports on with such earnest commitment and mascara every night from my TV. Actually, maybe we’re better off than your average Ukrainian.

“Ukraine’s under-reformed economy teeters on the edge of national bankruptcy, the rule of law is elusive, courts remain corrupt and the parliament resembles a trading platform for business tycoons in which deals are made and seats bought and sold,” reports The Economist, of which I’m not a regular reader. In fact, most of my spare time over the past month or so has been devoted to the novels of Andrey Kurkov. (I was addicted to Geoff Dyer before that.)

Born in Leningrad, Russia, he grew up in the Russian-speaking part of Kiev. A graduate of the Kiev Foreign Language Institute, Kurkov served as a prison warder at Odessa – an alternative to working for the KGB as a translator – using his spare time to write his first works, children’s stories. The author of 13 adult novels, his prose style is pleasingly spare and unembellished; his themes are darkly cynical, very funny, and always tinged with an element of the absurd.

Death and the Penguin

In Death and the Penguin (2003), a slim little book hailed as a “minor classic” by critics, he tells the story of a failed author employed to write newspaper obituaries for the living. There is nothing unusual in this practice, most newspapers locally having ready-to-print supplements for the day Madiba leaves us, alone and bereft – except that in Kurkov’s novel the obituarist’s subjects have a habit of mysteriously dying soon after he has written his audits. He suspects a criminal enterprise behind it all but like a good freelancer banks his cheques without any questions.

Incidentally, the penguin in the title refers to Misha, a king penguin (with a weak heart) that the narrator keeps in his flat. True story: a couple of years ago the bankrupt Kiev zoo gave away animals to citizens who promised to look after an animal of their choice. Given the circumstances of the political geography his works are set in, it is perhaps unsurprising that Kurkov should describe the Ukraine as an “odd country”. For Viktor, the central protagonist in Death and the Penguin, all he can hope for is “to endure, full stop, that was all he wanted”.


The plot of Kurkov’s 2007 novel, The President’s Last Love, might sound like an elaboration of our commander in chief’s life story: it involves humble beginnings, not much education, militiamen, political nous and many women, some of them quite capricious. Except this is a story of a Ukrainian president of the near future, a man with a heart transplant that has given him a rash of freckles and might just have been sabotaged by his enemies, the new heart having a strange detonation device affixed to it. The book is a romp, which is a bit like saying Nikolai Gogol’s writing is upbeat. Melancholia, alcohol abuse, depression and failed ambitions recur in the lives of many of Kurkov’s characters.

The melancholia is particularly pronounced. Optimists, particularly those who believed the bumph offered in Shepard Fairey’s much-hyped “Hope” poster featuring Barack Obama, would do well to read Kurkov. Zuma loyalists too. “State service,” sighs Kurkov’s president, “takes a man progressively further from the norm. The higher you get, the less normal you are and I’m the President! Normal is the last thing for him to be – normal is too straightforward, too stupid, too naive, too good, and not what we as a nation ever elect.”

I bought Kurkov’s novels from The Book Lounge, corner Buitenkant & Roeland Street, Cape Town. Support independent book stores.

* David Owen Morgan’s illustration “Fair” references the fair-use claim at the root of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster controversy, rights of which are currently in dispute.

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  1. Jeff says:

    >The Ukraine can seem far away – it neighbours Romania in the south, Russia at north, and Poland, Slovakia and Hungary on its western borders, just in case you sat next to Julius Malema at school.

    I was sitting in front of Jools and also remember a country called the Republic of Moldova.

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