Andrey Kurkov: A Matter Of Death And Life

There is nothing original in the idea of what a person would do if they learned the scope of their finite lives. Invariably they make lists of things they haven’t seen, things they haven’t done, people to say their farewells to, and, if time permits, share a hand in planning the funeral. In this conceit, Andrey Kurkov’s A Matter Of Death And Life (1996, translated 2005) is nothing new (the situation arose on this blog in Quim Monzó’s The Enormity Of The Tragedy) but, rather than a terminal illness forcing tidy conclusions to his mortality, Tolya, the novel’s narrator, has decided to take matters into his own hands.

In post-Soviet Kiev, law and order has taken a back seat allowing the shadow of corruption to conceal the dodgy deals masquerading as business. This is a Kiev where “any kind of relationship is for sale”, life cheapened by the lack of opportunity, rendered useless. With nothing to live for, Tolya decides that the only way out is to hire a contract killer:

For years, in imagination and fantasy, I had been seeking some way out of my dead-end situation in life. And here, on a plate, it was – out of the dead end and of life itself. Too fond of life ever to take my own, I was made for the role of victim.

Such a drastic decision is arrived at because his marriage is falling apart and, as far as employment goes, Tolya finds himself drifting aimlessly from job to job. To be offed in such curious circumstances would place gravity upon him, make him someone people talked about, preserve his legend:

The idea of an effective end to my senseless life was alluring. One engaging feature of mysterious killings is how often they get referred to in the press and in books, along with names and details, affording a fair chance of survival in the popular memory.

Luckily his friend Dima has connections in the murky underworld, willing to do business for a paltry sum, and the plan is set in motion. Under the pretence of killing the lover of his wife, Tolya slips his own photograph and routine into the hitman’s dossier. But, after a brief dalliance with a prostitute – another unoriginality: the hooker with a heart of gold – Tolya finds himself preferring to embrace life after all. So, with a hitman looking to take him out, Tolya decides that the only logical step is to take out another contract.

It’s a light farce for the most part, only acquiring a bit of weight when Tolya steps into the aftermath of his actions, forming a bond with the wife of the first hitman who, without her husband, is equally lost. But the gravitas is not enough to balance the scales and, despite all of Tolya’s philosophising, and the seriousness of life in this impoverished Kiev, A Matter Of Death And Life is little more than a romp.

As a romp, however, it’s enjoyable and a whizz to read, breezing along with a fair mix of action and internalising, funny and captivating all the way, even at its most melancholy. And Kurkov does just the right thing by keeping the novel slight, at just over 110 pages. Any more and it would have become aimless, necessitating its own contract killing.

February 1, 2008

7 responses to Andrey Kurkov: A Matter Of Death And Life

  1. Beth said:

    This sounds like such a funny premise, in that dark, dark sense that works so well. I love dark irony when it’s carried to this extent. Excellent review, and you have such a gift for making each book you review ultimately appealing, whether or not you as reviewer actually like the work.

  2. steffee said:

    Ha ha, this author reminds me of you.

    Er, the whole Penguin thing. Or maybe it was because you remind me of a nun. ;’)

  3. Stewart said:

    I won’t ask questions. Think I’m too scared to.

  4. steffee said:

    Am I haunting your blog? :-s

  5. You’re right about some of the plot and character originality, but the book does a pretty good job of capturing the feel of post independence, pre Orange-revolution, Ukraine.

  6. John Self said:

    I felt the same about Death and the Penguin which I think was the first of Kurkov’s novels to be brought into English. If they’re all like this, it makes you wonder exactly who’s buying them, but they must be doing well enough when they keep translating more and more of his stuff for our benefit.

  7. Stewart said:

    I still think I’d like to read Death And The Penguin as that’s supposed to be his best one. A Matter Of Life And Death was sparse and even though it would appear to be more of the same, I don’t want to dismiss him on the strength of one lightweight novella.

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