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The Good Angel of Death by Andrey Kurkov and Andrew Bromfield


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The Good Angel of Death by Andrey Kurkov and Andrew Bromfield

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An intriguing tale of an unlikely journey around the old Soviet Union for a humble property guard.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 384 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099513490

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Kolya cannot possibly expect what the act of moving flat, and finding a book among what the old folks who move out leave behind, might lead to. I can hint that it involves a trip of several hundreds of miles, involves a couple of pieces of anatomy the average man does not fancy leaving behind, a chameleon, Kolya being given as a husband-cum-present to a lovely young lady, and a lot more. The find involves Ukraine's national author, Taras Shevchenko, and a hunt for something he might have left behind in a desert abutting the Caspian Sea.

The quest is only going to get more and more concerned with the Ukrainian national spirit, but this is handled very well. It is something that overlies the initial portions of this book in a way that you don't have to see it if you don't care to look for it, and when it becomes a principal feature of the oddness of the plot it is done so never to be overbearing. There will be many people turning to this book without any prior knowledge of Ukraine, and the benefit of the storytelling is that won't matter.

In a way, the storytelling could be better. Kurkov is one of those pithy, witty, dry authors, and his tales have a lot to say about post-Soviet Ukraine, Russia etc. Here he doesn't provide as much humour as he is eminently capable of, and although the plot has a lot that is quirky, bizarre and gifted with a European sensibility carried through since the days of Kafka, I think he could still have gone further with it.

But there is no second-guessing the story, whether it be the relationships Kolya has with the people he meets, the people he's never (apparently) met, who compel him to set out by leaning on him as regards a subplot featuring illegal drugs, or indeed where he actually ends up. There is a long journey for him, as I say, and the book (already ten years old, and only translated in 1999) touches on the reach of the Soviet Bloc - what the Russians spread over the USSR, what they chose to leave behind, and what they brought back home. In the end, the plot tells us, many people may wish to seek the national spirit, and try and carry it with them - other people might be more concerned in transporting less salubrious produce across post-Soviet borders.

I've highlighted this as literary fiction primarily, and general fiction second. The plot could be completely rewritten for a hapless man chasing something Shakespeare or Dickens might have wanted burying, but it would be an entirely different beast - probably an airport mass-market paperback. There is a tiny sense of a struggle with this book at times, and I am sure one has to be Ukrainian (or Russian) to get the most out of these pages, but this remains readable. Kolya is a likeable character, his travails and travels suitably exotic and unexpected, but I repeat that with an imagination like Kurkov's, the seemingly meaningless could have been given a more entertaining meaning than here.

And I would insist the national spirit of Ukraine is not cinnamon but dill, as it was served with every dish I ate there.

I must thank Vintage Books' kind people for my review copy.

There are few books outside Kurkov's back catalogue to feature Ukraine. Strange Telescopes by Daniel Kalder is one. More recently, The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer ended up there, with its brilliant historical fiction. You might like to try Compartment No 6 by Rosa Liksom, but we had our reservations.

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