For a short novel, Numero Zero is amazingly leisurely and discursive. It’s like an Arabian Nights for conspiracy theorists, historians of the late 20th century and political sceptics, with stories within stories, asides, facts, speculation, satire and nods to the past and future. If that sounds like a bit of a mess and possibly hard going, in fact it’s jolly and generally entertaining, if slightly uneven.
Gorsky is an enigmatic, much-gossiped-about billionaire who is rarely seen at his own famously gorgeous parties; there is a suggestion of some enormous unresolved romance in his life; his public character has something staged, unusually deliberate, theatrical about it—you could say that his personality is “an unbroken series of successful gestures”, if you wanted to quote from The Great Gatsby. And you probably do want to quote from The Great Gatsby; I did from the blurb onwards.
Some years ago during one of the dull seasons—our work was very much on the seasonal side—my Waterstones branch entered a Book Tokens company competition on ‘opening lines’. We had to identify the opening lines of various more-or-less famous novels. We also had to come up with an opening line of our own. For whatever reason, ‘I’d been prodding the Frenchman with my boot all day to see if he was dead’ was the egg that my subconscious laid and we used that. It bothered me a little, it itched, and I knew that I wanted to make a story from it some time. Much later, the story suddenly came to me in the shower; at that time most of my best ideas, such as they were, seemed to emerge under hot water. I used to covet a pen with ink that would hold to the watery tiles, but that could be wiped away later. Continue reading →
I have come to wonder whether I will make it through my twenty-third year. In the nine months since my mother died, I started a new job, which led me to meet a number of new people, one of whom I killed in a misunderstanding. But other things happened in the first twenty-two years that I should explain first.
‘The people’ are returning from their winter quarters by the sea. They are troubled by a sense of ‘other’. The familiar landscape has changed and there are signs and shadows that worry them. One by one they meet the new thing, something beyond their understanding.
The opening is an almost conventional attention-grabbing shocker: ‘Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.’ From then on it’s quite different. Not immediately, urgently, collar-shakingly different, but different from the opening, and different from other books.
The first of Kurkov’s novels to be translated into English was Death and the Penguin, in 2001; the Russian-language original, Smert’postoronnego, had been published in Ukraine five years earlier. It was an oblique, unpredictable success. A hard-boiled portrait of post-Soviet Ukraine, with its gangsters and corrupt politicians and its moral and physical uncertainty, could easily have attracted some earnest critical interest, but this was different. It seemed plausible and even matter of fact, offering an insight into its time and place, but with this came a protagonist with a pet penguin and a job straight from a sinister version of GK Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades, where eccentrically employed members must have invented the means by which they earn their living.