Rating 3 stars
I started reading Andrey Kurkov’s books almost 20 years ago, starting with the first of his Penguin books, about an investigative journalist and the penguin he adopts from a closing zoo. I enjoyed his satire of life in a former Soviet state and its struggles with a post independence relationship with Russia. The President’s Last Love, translated by George Bird, is a more ambitious work that spans four decades and explores the trajectory of one man from street gang member to catering manager to president.
The state in question is Ukraine, the next country on my literary European tour. What do I know about Ukraine? Its capital is Kyiv, which I grew up calling Kiev, and it has a coastline on the Black Sea. There is disputed territory in the Crimea and Donbas regions. There have been poisonings of presidential candidates, an Orange Revolution following rigged elections in 2004, and a series of protests against closer links to Russia, known as the Euromaidan, in 2013-2014 that resulted in the sitting government being overthrown. The country has been under Russia’s control under the Tsarist Empire and again as part of the Soviet Union. The interference of Russia in its neighbour’s affairs suggests that, for some in Ukrainian politics, Russia still calls the shots.
The majority of The President’s Last Love is set in Kyiv, so let’s visit there.
Most of the sites recommending things to see and do in Kyiv refer to religious sites in the city. The cathedral is St Sophia, an 11th century Byzantine building with 18th century baroque features, named for the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It is famous for its 13 green and gold domes, its frescoes and its mosaics.
There’s also St Andrew’s church, which stands at the top of a steep street known as Andriyivsky Descent. I like the description on this site of the street being reputed to be an artistic place, but the reality being tourist tat on souvenir stalls. It’s a description that made me think of the streets on the way up to the Sacré Cœur in Paris. What that site fails to say is that Mikhail Bulgakov used to live on the street and his house is now a museum. Bulgakov is a Russian writer that I haven’t read yet.
On another hill in the city is a complex of museums, churches and catacombs called the Pechersk Lavra. This is a former monastery, and the catacombs contain the mummified bodies of the monks who lived and died in the catacombs.
But what if you’re not religious or interested in church architecture? There’s an old fortified gate that fell into disrepair and was buried, and is now covered over with a replica of itself. It’s called the Golden Gate of Kiev and there’s an Irish pub nearby for visitors who like to mix their cultures.
There’s also a former military factory, the Mystetskyi Arsenal, which now houses the National Art and Culture Centre that puts on art exhibitions, theatre performances, festivals and concerts.
And if you want some beach time on a summer visit to the city, the Parkovy pedestrian bridge will lead you over the River Dnieper to Trukhanov Island, where you can sunbathe, swim or fish and then spend the evening enjoying the local bars and restaurants. The island has been used in the past to house tourists visiting the city for major events, such as the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005 and Euro 2012 football matches.
Some of these landmarks feature in The President’s Last Love, and my reading about them helped to make the locations in the novel feel more real.
The story begins with a brief visit to Kyiv in 1975, and the youth of Sergey Pavlovich Bunin, who grew up in a Soviet apartment block and enjoyed drinking port in his teenage years, running with his friends in a street gang. Bunin is the President of the title, and is looking back over his life after an operation, recalling being 14 years old in 1975. Kurkov has written an episodic novel, in a kind of diary form, that flits between events, decades, years, building a patchwork profile of President Bunin and of Ukraine’s political state.
Kurkov makes a couple of nods to Russian literature. His President shares a surname with Russian Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin. His aide is reading Gogol’s Dead Souls at the start of the book, as Bunin recuperates. These references are seemingly without purpose, though. Nothing is made of them in relation to the story. I suppose the reader has to know about Ivan Bunin (an anti-communist writer viewed as the realist heir to Tolstoy and Chekhov) and Gogol (a satirist of Russian politics and a surrealist in stark contrast to Tolstoy in particular) to squeeze out any meaning Kurkov intended. Perhaps he wanted to position himself as continuing the critical tradition of these Russian greats. Less well known beyond Ukraine is the playwright Oleksandr Korniychuk, a Socialist Realist and Stalin Prize laureate who romanticised Soviet ideals. The Pan-Slavist 19th century poet Fyodor Tyutchev also gets a brief mention through the quotation of a line from one of his poems. And, of course, Mikhail Bulgakov gets a look in, too.
I had a little reading tussle at the start of the book. The President’s Last Love was published in Russian in 2004, meaning that Kurkov wrote it before the Orange Revolution. A third of its action is in 2015-2016, a time in its own future but in my past as I read. Kurkov didn’t know what would happen mere months, never mind a decade after he wrote the book. He could only imagine. I read knowing some of the reality of the setting for his novel. Without the Orange Revolution, the corrupt version of post Soviet democracy persists in Bunin’s world. Kurkov also has Bunin mention the Crimean Tatars as citizens of Ukraine, whose reality in this novel is necessarily different to the reality in our present day world. At a world leadership event attended by Bunin in 2013, Kim Jong-il is present, still alive two years after his death in the real world. I decided that I needed to ignore the disparities and treat this as an alternate reality.
As the narrative gets underway, President Bunin does a lot of admin from his hospital bed, a lot of thinking about how to satisfy the different factions in his country and how to draw everyone together in celebration of their continued independence. He reflects on Ukraine’s fractious relationship with Russia as he recalls a winter pool party held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Here he strikes a deal with Russia’s President Putin, in which Putin gets rid of those who are causing trouble for Bunin and Bunin reciprocates to disappear those who are troublesome to Putin. It’s a project that has the codename Operation Other Hands. The surreal nature of post Soviet existence could be fodder for a Wes Anderson film, inspiration for the microcosm of the Roy family in Succession, or the subject of an Armando Iannucci satire. Which is a way of saying that, while Kurkov’s narrative is amusing, seventeen years on from publication it doesn’t feel very fresh.
With the action jumping from year to year and decade to decade, we learn that Bunin has been married three times, has had affairs, and has the heart of a dead man beating in his chest. This last thing came with consequences. After a heart attack that, with the President in a coma, allegedly threatened the stability of government, surgeons transplanted the heart of a man who died in the next operating theatre, but only on the widow’s condition that she would be allowed to remain in the heart’s vicinity. This is kept from Bunin until the woman, Mayya Vladimirovna, turns up as a visitor, but says nothing, and then an office near his is suddenly vacated. When Bunin quizzes his Head of Administration, Nikolai Lvovich, a man in the mould of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister, the story is revealed.
From his youth running in a street gang, we learn that Bunin cultivates alliances with minor authority figures who help him escape the apartment block. The first time he marries, it’s a shotgun wedding to a local girl, Svetka, who lives in the same complex of apartment blocks. The stillbirth of their first child helps them to realise they are too young and incompatible. His arrest and imprisonment for going with another woman to her all female hostel on the night his baby is delivered is a twin catalyst – it encourages Svetka to leave him, and it introduces Bunin to the District Militia.
The second time he marries is a marriage of convenience, to Mira. She is the daughter of David Isaakovich, a hermit Bunin is rescued by when he falls asleep in the snow on the then otherwise uninhabited Trukhanov Island. Mira lives in a shared flat with her mother and works at the Opera House. When her mother decides to emigrate to Israel, Bunin gets involved in persuading David Isaakovich to do what is necessary, as estranged husband and father, to make their move possible. Nine years later, they return and need to secure residency rights. Bunin has taken on David Isaakovich’s room after his death, and so his and Mira’s mothers cook up a plan that involves a short-lived and miserable marriage.
Bunin’s third marriage is to Svetlana, a successful businesswoman and the twin sister of a fellow patient to Bunin’s twin brother. By this time, Bunin is a Deputy Minister, noticed by someone more senior in the government who earmarks him for bigger things. He uses his position and Svetlana’s wealth to remove his brother and her sister from the residential home in Kyiv to a sanatorium in Switzerland. It isn’t stated, but the sense is that it’s better for Bunin’s career if he doesn’t have a mentally ill brother close by.
Bunin’s relationships with his wives, his girlfriends, the widow, his mother and his brother are the crux of the novel, and the way we get to know Bunin. Surrounding who he is as a person is the statecraft involved in moving through the political ranks to become President. The overarching feeling I got was that Bunin is mostly interested in having a comfortable life. He’s happy, as long as his position as President isn’t undermined, for his Ministers to come up with plans and solutions to problems. The novel is an easy read, but it didn’t blow me away. Maybe if I’d read it back when I bought it, I would have felt differently towards it. As it is, the world has moved on, and what was the fodder for satire back then is now, sadly, normalised. Still, the occasional descriptions of how Ukrainian government works were interesting.
Speaking of the world moving on, I recoiled at Kurkov’s choice of word to describe a biracial Black woman. The setting of the scene is 2004, the same year Kurkov was writing it. You’d think he’d have known that it isn’t okay for a white man to use a term created during slavery and derived from the Spanish word for mule to describe a person of colour. It’s not reported speech, like some of the other instances of prejudice in the book, directed towards Jewish people, the Tatars and even Russians, for example, but a narrative description. Racism and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is a big enough issue in Ukraine for there to be a Wikipedia page about it. You could say that Kurkov is representing Ukraine as it is, but that specific choice of word to describe a Black woman didn’t feel like that to me.
The women, too, although significant in understanding Bunin’s character, are at the same time incidental. Bunin doesn’t have a single serious conversation with any of them. They are objects of desire, receptacles for his sperm, dolls to dress up in fancy underwear and expensive shoes. Svetlana comes the closest to having agency. She’s a highly successful independent businesswoman after all. When she becomes pregnant, it could go either way on whether she goes it alone or consolidates her relationship with Bunin. Ultimately, though, it’s the state’s need for respectability that takes the decision from her, and she ends up married and living in Bunin’s state provided residence. She hands her business over to managers so that she can concentrate on being a wife and mother. There’s a tragic end to their joint story, one that is genuinely moving.
Mayya Vladimirovna, meanwhile, is described by Bunin as someone he’s not aware of as being a woman. By which he means he’s not attracted to her. She becomes someone he has what he terms ‘normal conversations’ with. Bunin is alone at this point in his life, no wife, no family. He relishes the opportunity to spend time with someone purely because she is pleasant to talk with. On one occasion with Mayya, Bunin’s true feelings towards women are articulated. In a throwaway line, he says that, “I have always felt sorry for dogs, for women too, but less often.” There follows a conversation with Mayya in which she is given words to speak that could really only have come from the mind of a man.
Mayya laughs. We are again walking arm in arm.
‘Clever men are ambitious. They pick women they look good beside. But women who have played these games realise that away from their clever men they look even better. Simple as that.’
‘You’re destroying my illusions. I want to believe in women – their loyalty, their devotion, their concern.’
‘Believe away! But bear in mind that only a less than beautiful woman can love like that, and then simply out of gratitude for being noticed. Beautiful women calculate. All the way – from how they feel to how to respond, given the glad eye.’
What nonsense. If a woman feels gratitude for being noticed, it’s only because a male-centred society has made her feel that way, a society that also encourages men to feel entitled to a woman’s attention. And that results in all women feeling the need to calculate, not just those deemed beautiful, because entitlement is a dangerous thing and, until you know who a man is, responding to the glad eye involves risk, whether it’s a catcall in the street, attention from a stranger in a social setting or being chatted up by a casual acquaintance. For me, Kurkov demonstrates here that many men have no bloody idea.
The most charming part of the story is that of a miracle involving potatoes. Bunin is suffering from stress as a result of the contract with Mayya Vladimirovna concerning her dead husband’s heart. A stress therapist is brought in, who recommends hard labour. Bunin is flown at night to a remote region in Western Ukraine, where he digs a field. Dawn begins to break before he’s finished, so factotums are tasked with finishing the job. Months later, the Vatican certifies a miracle in the region. It turns out that the owner of the field witnessed a bright light at night and in the morning saw that her field had been dug over, she presumes by angels. Now she has a miraculous potato harvest and everyone in her village has converted to the Roman Catholic faith. The potatoes, on testing, turn out to be genetically modified and packed full of iron and vitamins. They were stolen from an American laboratory and their Vatican seal of approval means that Ukraine can feed its people better.
The silliest thing in the novel is the canonisation of Lenin by the Russian Orthodox church, turning him into The Great and Holy Martyr Vladimir. There follows a competition between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches over who can produce the largest number of weeping icons of the former Bolshevik.
As mentioned above, there’s a moving story as part of the thread documenting Bunin’s marriage to Svetlana. It explores loneliness within marriage and the tragedy of children dying at birth. Kurkov focuses on Bunin’s response, which doesn’t make Bunin look good, and, although there is no direct insight into how Svetlana is feeling, her withdrawal from her husband and his lack of understanding or interest in her needs speaks volumes.
Towards the end, the 2015/16 Presidential thread becomes ludicrous, but without feeling satirical. The trajectories of the other threads resolve some of the questions around Bunin’s Presidential existence and how he got there, and kept me reading. If this had been a straight chronological novel, I would possibly have given up once the true nature of the implanted heart was revealed.
Not Kurkov’s best, but there are interesting things in there.