Andrei Kurkov, the man from kyiv

The Ear of kyiv

by Andrei Kurkov

Translated from Russian by Paul Lequesne

Liana Levi, 368 pages, €22

As the war in Ukraine continues, Ukraine’s best-known writer has chosen to step aside. Andrei Kurkov’s new book is a historical detective novel set in the 1920s. As he explains in a short foreword, this project was born out of a gift, when two of the writer’s friends came home with old police files taken from an attic where they were gathering dust. Andrei Kurkov immersed himself in these archives. He found inspiration there, while adding a touch of burlesque and fantasy, these traits that make the salt of his stories.

Since The Penguin, published in 1996, Andrei Kurkov has never ceased to chronicle the first steps of independent Ukraine. He does it with an imagination that nothing seems to be able to dry up, in a humorous and tender tone, featuring characters who do not control their destiny, but are saved by their kindness and by providence.

Over the course of twenty novels as tasty as a plate of bortch, Andreï Kurkov has already evoked politics, the mafias, or the difficulty for former Soviet citizens to make their way in the new world. His last novel published in France, gray bees, approached the war in a premonitory way. It took place in the Donbass, on the front line between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army.

A solid silver femur

Russian-speaking writer, translated into twenty languages, Andrei Kurkov has not been broadcast in Russia for fifteen years, when he took a stand in favor of Ukraine’s right to defend its independence. He was in kyiv when the first Russian bombardments began on the night of February 24.

Like many inhabitants of the capital, he took shelter in the west of the country, less exposed to Russian attacks. The current war could have forced him into silence. After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2015, he told us that he experienced a bad patch during which it became difficult for him to tell stories.

This time, that’s not the case. And it is perhaps thanks to this artifice which consisted in teleporting in the past. Andrei Kurkov chose, with this Ear of kyiv to plunge back a century by adopting the codes of the detective novel. It depicts a young man, Samson Koletchko, who finds himself an orphan and who is invited, by chance, to join the new nascent Bolshevik police, before investigating a murder case. So we hunt down, in his company, the thieves of a sterling silver femur and the assassins of a men’s suit, in a story full of twists and turns.

The reconstitution of kyiv in 1920

The action takes place in a hectic period. Ukraine is fighting – already – to preserve its independence, which was difficult to win in 1917. Moscow is contesting this freedom. The Red Army set out to conquer the country. The novel begins when the Bolsheviks have just seized the capital. The new authorities practice the requisition in an arbitrary way. We burn the furniture in the stoves to heat ourselves…

Andrei Kurkov meticulously reconstructs the topography and the atmosphere of the time. He thus pays homage to his city of kyiv, which often serves as the setting for his novels and to which the writer has never ceased to proclaim his attachment. This tribute resonates all the more strongly as the Ukrainian capital is today once again threatened and bruised.

Good news, Andrei Kurkov suggests that his investigator character is called to return. We should therefore be able to continue to follow the investigations of Samson Koletchko, and find Nadezhda, his young and pretty fiancée, his superior within the police, the ruthless Naïden, and ride with them in the streets of kyiv in this troubled period of aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. And it is an exciting prospect.

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