Article published on October 8, 2011.
Andrey Kurkov’s novel, Death and the Penguin, established him as something of a cult author. The Milkman in the Night is his most recent novel to be translated, and is set in his native Ukraine.
The novel follows four seemingly disparate characters through their daily lives in Kiev and the surrounding area, with each chapter telling the story from a different perspective. There’s Irina, the single mother who works in a milk kitchen in Kiev, providing breast milk for privileged babies; Egor, who works in security around the parliament buildings and lives in the same village as Irina; Semyon, security and right-hand man to Gennady Ilyich, a high-ranking member of parliament; and Dima, a sniffer-dog handler in airport security. Scattered throughout are a broad spectrum of secondary characters, corrupt priests and baggage handlers, widows, and a mysterious cult. Kurkov has created a novel that is part mystery, part tale of the absurd. Starting with the unsolved murder of an eminent pharmacist, the novel slowly draws the characters into the web of an unknown drug he has been creating, to instill a sense of justice into Kiev’s citizens. Dima stumbles upon ampoules of this liquid and sells them on the black market, saving some back for his cat, Fluffy. Meanwhile Semyon realises he is sleep-walking and asks a colleague to tail him, and Egor proposes to Irina.
Kurkov has created a novel that provides snapshots of a life in his homeland, showing the corruption alongside the ordinary, every day lives of its citizens. The writing is often light in tone, with wit generated by some of the more absurd moments in the story; the plastination of the pharmacist by his widow to preserve him, the rash of sleep-walkers in the city, and the crime-fighting cat in particular. The author occasionally takes a step back from the narrative, throwing pertinent and philosophical turns of phrase into the novel that are just as relevant to life as to the characters. With novels in translation, there is a risk of the writing being lost to an insensitive hand, and while there are a few missteps, the translator has done a good job to produce a readable and considered text.
The Milkman in the Night is has several engaging characters – both major and minor – and some great set pieces. It is something of a slow burner, taking a little while to get going as it sets the background for the characters, detailing the minutiae of their lives. Once it does though, it is well-paced, with short chapters that make for easy reading. It works more as a pseudo-mystery novel, than Kurkov’s usual politically-minded fiction, but is no worse off for this, with the unravelling of the various mysteries – the murder, the ampoules – making for an entertaining and very enjoyable novel.
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