The Milkman in the Night, By Andrey Kurkov Harvill Secker, £12.99 Order for £11.69 (free p&p)from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Surreal tale is absurdly entertaining

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Tuesday 27 September 2011 00:00
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The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov compares his narrative to a cracked windscreen, fracturing out in all directions. In this novel (translated by Amanda Love Darragh), the multiple satirical stories wrap around one another, beginning with a single event: a shooting in a Kiev street. It radiates into the worlds of other characters, through the city and out into the peasant countryside.

In the hands of a less skilful writer, this loose structure would be a dangerous technique. But Kurkov entices us along all the fault-lines of his bizarre world, where a young man sleepwalks through a double life and a widow notices her embalmed husband has fresh dirt on his unworn shoes.

A vital figure is the young mother, Irina. British fans grew to love Kurkov through the enigmatic presence in earlier works of a penguin rescued from a zoo. The penguin does not feature in this work, but his symbolism is partly conveyed by the plump figure of Irina – stolid, yet capable of bearing enormous mythological weight.

If the penguin sometimes stood for the freed but flightless post-Soviet Ukraine, Irina is the country as "single mother". Literally, for Irina is a wet nurse under a system which buys her breast milk for just enough to keep her and her own child alive: a state-commercialised form of the practice under the Tsars.

Her baby is fed on formula, while she goes to express her milk at a human dairy where it disappears into bottles to nourish an infant of a senior apparatchik. Driven by a desire to find out the identity of this child, Irina begs the services of an ambitious young official. This turns into a minefield , for a party official has a special demand for Irina's milk.

Another citizen trying to survive is Dima, a dog-handler searching baggage at an airport. When his German shepherd tracks down a suitcase full of ampoules, Dima and his friends appropriate it, and soon the mysterious liquid is spreading its effects all over Kiev. It has amazing revitalising powers, reviving Dima's dead cat until it overcomes a bulldog. Like Irina, Dima is an elemental character. He can be raised to a near-mystical contentment by delight in the simplest things – black bread rubbed with onion, sunlight – and rejoins the animal kingdom as "a creature of God whose only aim was to live and enjoy life". But is anything really changing in the newly liberated country?

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