Andrey Kurkov’s new book is a surreal tale of post-Soviet Ukraine, in the same vein as his cult novel Death and the Penguin but with less poignant irony and more straight farce.
The Milkman in the Night opens with a night-time murder, followed by the interception at an airport of a suitcase full of mysterious ampoules and some bizarre goings-on at a private clinic where impoverished single mothers are paid to express their surplus breast milk. From there the plot unwinds in a complex helter-skelter of more and more improbable events. Sometimes the inventiveness is exhilarating, at other times the sheer implausibility of the narrative can grate.
The characters who unleash these extraordinary plots are humble people eking out a precarious living in the unglamorous corners of Kiev and its impoverished hinterland. Irina, a single mother, travels into Kiev every day from the snowbound village of Lipovka to sell her breast milk. Dima, a sniffer-dog handler at Boryspil airport, tries to change his luck by stealing a dodgy suitcase. Semyon, a private bodyguard to a parliamentary deputy, is revealed to be a sleepwalker with a separate nocturnal life of which his daytime self is completely unaware; his wife Veronika makes friends with the eccentric widow of the pharmacist whose murder opens the book.
In the best absurdist tradition, the priest who comes to exorcise Dima’s house and car charges extra because there are no airbags, while the murdered pharmacist had developed an elixir called Anti-Wimp, which stimulates not only courage but also an exaggerated sense of social justice (politicians order it by the bucket-load). If this isn’t enough, the pharmacist’s widow has his body plasticised and seats him by the window in her apartment until it begins to smell; her friend does the same with her dead husband and the two women finally bury their spouses next to each other. And so it goes on.
There’s a fine line in absurdism between consequential craziness and silliness just for the sake of it, and in this book it’s not always clear which is which. We are a third of the way in before we discover Semyon is sleepwalking his way through a secret love affair. We then learn that his wife has also forgotten that she lost a baby some years ago. Kurkov cannot be accused of tying up his plotlines too neatly.
All the while, through the interstices of these comically desperate lives, we catch glimpses of the new, unaccountably wealthy elite who run the country, drive pink Hummers, surround themselves with bodyguards and throw vast parties at private dachas where they bathe in milk. This offstage political thread is one of the strengths of the book, which becomes weaker towards the end as it unwinds into the shady nocturnal “Embassy of the Moon” party, supposedly the new democratic face of Kiev politics, which meets by night in order not to trouble the good citizens who just want to get on with their lives.
The translation is by Amanda Love Darragh, who has a lighter touch than Kurkov’s previous translator, George Bird, though one can’t tell whether some passages, such as the “Embassy of the Moon” episode, owe their abstruseness to the author or to the translation.
We want to engage with the humble characters, whose problems of daily survival provide a comic foil for the machinations of the elite, but it’s difficult in such a plot-driven book for them to become fully rounded, with enough depth to attract sympathy as well as laughs. The honourable exceptions here, as in Kurkov’s “Penguin” books, are the animal characters. In The Milkman in the Night, it is Fluffy (or Scruffy?) the cat with his Anti-Wimp addiction, who is surely the unwitting hero of the tale.
There is much to enjoy in this book. Kurkov works in the tradition of Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov, blending folkloric characters, magical realism and political satire to reveal a society riddled with greed, stupidity and corruption. It is a world where happy endings are unlikely but still sometimes happen, no less in Tsarist or Soviet times than in present-day Ukraine.
Marina Lewycka is author of ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’, ‘Two Caravans’ and ‘We Are All Made of Glue’ (all Penguin)
The Milkman in the Night, by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Amanda Love Darragh, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99, 480 pages