The Case of the General’s Thumb, by Andrey Kurkov

Kurkov cvr

Trying to work out what on earth was going on in this short novel reminded me of that line in Burn After Reading, ‘Report back to me when ah … I dunno … when it makes sense.’  Things are wrapped up at the end of Andrey Kurklov’s The Case of the General’s Thumb, after a fashion, but only following an enormous amount of confusion in the meantime.  It is part of the author’s skill that the reader keeps at it despite wondering how it is all going to fit together.

The plot begins with the body of the titular Ukrainian general, missing his thumb, being discovered attached to an advertising balloon in Kiev.  He is a presidential advisor with intelligence connections, and it is clear that there is some murky business behind his flamboyant demise.  Militia lieutenant Victor Slutsky is assigned to investigate, a surprising choice given the deceased’s eminence, but perhaps someone doesn’t want the investigation to get anywhere.  Meanwhile Nik Tsensky wants to move his family from Tajikistan to Kiev and, going on ahead, finds that his own intelligence skills are required for a clandestine job, the goal of which is unclear to him.

From the absurdist opening Kurkov charts the progress of Nik and Victor, overseen by unseen controllers with their own agenda, as they are bounced around Europe.  Their goal, it is gradually revealed, is a vast sum of missing cash, illicit loot from secret Soviet-era government investments, but each is hampered by being obliged to operate on a need-to-know basis.  What makes the story even more difficult to follow is that they are acting separately and the narration alternates between them, so the reader has to keep in mind two parallel strands each generating its own mysteries.  We share the ignorance of the pair as they fumble with instructions they do not understand given by shadowy figures whose motives they do not trust, and always cognisant that they are expendable and could find themselves tidied up as loose ends.

There is much commentary in passing on the state of Ukraine: the corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of decent housing – the efforts needed to get a good official flat is a running theme – a place where those who are in the way, or just know too much, can be disposed of without qualms.  References to Coca Cola, which the general’s balloon was advertising, and McDonald’s, which is mentioned several times, are more likely to allude to the vacuous foreign values being imported to replace the old ones than to be product placement or a celebration of the joys of international capitalism (Mazda gets a better press).    In these difficult circumstances some people try to maintain a moral compass while others are content to milk the system for their own self-interest.

The pace is fast though there are weaknesses.  Notable are points at which the psychology seems suspect, sacrificed to plot momentum.  A hitman driving a battered hearse is a striking image, but somewhat implausible.  It is also remarkably easy to get a mobile phone signal anywhere.  The reason the general is attached to the balloon, such a memorable start to the novel, is skipped over in the final explanations, which is a disappointment.  But such reservations are easily put to one side as the characters race around trying to make sense of it all and we enjoy the ride.

Andrey Kurkov is well placed to write about Russia and Ukraine and their often fractious relationship in the post-Soviet era, having been born in Leningrad and writing in Russian, but living in Kiev.  That he is a keen social commentator is indicated by the publication of his non-fiction Ukraine Diaries last year, charting the progress of the Maidan protests.  When the money is retrieved at the end of General’s Thumb we learn that it is destined for Russia as part-payment of Ukraine’s natural gas bill, on the grounds that the Kiev politicians would waste it.  This has to be a sardonic comment on Russia’s apparent feeling that it knows what is in Ukraine’s best interest, even if Ukraine itself doesn’t.

There are numerous nods in the novel to the social and economic difficulties presented by the breakup of the USSR, and continuing problems achieving peaceful coexistence between independent states that want to pull away from Moscow’s orbit but a Russian bear that isn’t happy with the idea.  Since its original publication in 2000 there has been an enormous shift in the relationship between the two countries, with Russia seizing Ukrainian territory and assets and encouraging separatism, so one suspects that if Kurkov were writing the book now it would have a rather different tone, probably something more bitter.

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