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A Matter of Death and Life is a Russian novel by Andrey Kurkov more famous for his novel Death and the Penguin (incidentally I am on the hunt for a copy of this). I think what really attracted me to this book was the blurb, or lack of it.
"Marital troubles? Sick of Life? Suicide the answer? Why not get yourself a contract killer?"
What could be more enticing than that!
The story is loosely told in a diary style and Tolya is our narrator. Stuck in Kiev with no hopes and no dreams he has no job, no money and a wife openly having an affair. Desperate to end his so called life suicide not being an option, what could be better than being taken out by a contract killer, for only people of importance are hunted by contract killers, think of the legacy in years to come of the mysterious man killed by a contract killer.
Fate playing its part Tolya bumps into an old school friend and once the vodka starts flowing he manages to get the contact details of a contract killer, his prayers are answered! Pretending he wants to end the life of his wife's lover he sends a photograph of himself and a location of a café nearby and starts counting down the days to his death. As the hours tick down Tolya prepares to go and makes his way to the "meeting" point. Things take an unexpected turn when he meets Lena, a local prostitute; death no longer seems like such a good idea.... Now if only there was some way to get rid of a contract killer?
I loved this book with its dark humour and original storyline although being a very short novel, a mere 122 pages it didn't lack in any department, the characters were clearly defined, the plot simplistic but not boring. Tolya reminded me ever so slightly of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, confused and alone looking for a way out of a hopeless situation.
Kurkov writes in a way that makes you sympathise with Tolya even though some of his choices are less than conventional. As I have said before I am a big fan of first person style novels so this book appealed greatly to me but it was also so addictive because the story was so unusual almost comical. I highly recommend this book as being so short it doesn't take long to read (I managed it in an evening and I am not a fast reader) and it is makes a very enjoyable, easy read.
Despite some occasional critical bashings, A Matter of Death and Life is perhaps Ukranian Author, Andrey Kurkov's most accessible novel. Closer in length to a novella (a mere 111 pages), A Matter of Death and Life is a read in one sitting work and was released in the wake of his two successful Penguin novels (Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost - both excellent).
Kurkov himself has had a colourful career. Trained as a translator, he worked as such for the KGB and the Military Police prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Just as the old USSR crumbled his first novel was published. He has also worked as a screenwriter and cameraman, but it seems to be fiction where he has found his niche. Kurkov has his own style, a mix of grim, sometimes brutal poetic-socio-realism and some considerable surrealism. There is always a lot of humour in Kurkov's novels but it is usually very dark humour indeed. But it balances out the occasional bursts of capitalist greed and brutal exercises of power that are scattered throughout his novels. The protagonists in Kurkov's four translated novels are for the most part pretty ordinary souls, living pretty averagely in towering, bland Soviet tower blocks. Often their paths are crossed by Ukrainians infected by the capitalist bug, sometimes little better than glorified gangsters, using any means possible to achieve money and or power - though not always. Sometimes these people surprise you. Nevertheless, there is always a sense of the tenuous nature of life and existence, of people for the most part still reliant on the state for housing and it is something of a lottery whether or not they are given the boon of social housing.
Thus Kurkov sits entrenched on one level in almost socialistic interest. The character of Lena, who crosses the protagonist, Tolya's, path, her main goal is finding permanent shelter, almost to the exclusion of all other things.
But to return to the beginning. The title is of course reminiscent of Powell and Pressburgers 1946 film, with the words "life" and "death" swapped round. It has a little in common with the film, the spirit of the fantastical is present in both, and in both there is the juxtaposition of the normal and the unusual. Though in the case of the novel, the title: A Matter of Death and Life is important in as much the order of the words "Death" and "life" reflects the path of the novel. As we enter Kurkov's novel, by way of his trademark short, punchy mordant prose, Tolya is living a dull life, unemployed and stuck in a small flat with his estranged wife, who is very clearly and openly having an affair. This doesn't so much bother Tolya as adds to his sense of despondency. His despondency is not one of self-pity; though Tolya spends a lot of time wandering the streets and drinking vodka, he is not stuck in either maudlin introspection or woe is me fatalism. Rather, he decides, as he has become as much estranged from life as he has from his wife and friends, to end his life spectacularly. As in so many Kurkov's novels, friends old or otherwise tenuous, act as a catalyst and Tolya meets an old friend who puts him in touch with a hitman, ostensibly to kill his wife's lover, but in reality to kill him. As instead of his wife's lover's details, Tolya provides his own picture and names the time and place (in his favourite cafe) for his demise.
Thus the "Death" part of the title is ensured. But, wait, oh me oh my. Tolya, his wife having moved out for good, and alone in the cramped apartment, meets Lena, another one of Kurkov's good-natured, oddly regenerating prostitutes, who visits Tolya bringing her body, wine, salami and life back into his existence. Naturally, Tolya is now in a proverbial pickle, and in a tragic-comic twist of fate is forced to hire a hitman to kill the hitman that is going to kill him. Farcical? Maybe in suggestion but not in tone; the novel has moments of possible farce but they usually become more tragic or darkly comic and lead, inexorably, to human feelings. We know that Tolya will survive simply by how much of the novel is left, and here the "Life" really does kick in, as in true Kurkov style we push behind the scenes of the comedy and enter back into the socio-political slice of life that we left behind with Lena's plan to garner social housing and his cramped, impossible life with his wife. Tolya seeks out the original hitman's wife, to find her uncognisant of her husband's profession and in possession of a small child. Thus Tolya feels an understandable responsibility for this woman and her child. He has, through his own depression, caused the death of her husband and deprived her of her means of income. Again, Kurkov is piercing the comedy and recognising the betrayed humanity behind it. In a sense this is something of a metaphor for the whole Ukrainian system. Behind the flashiness, the ambition and the occasional brutality there is a human price to pay that is rarely recognised and even rarer still is there an attempt to understand it. Kurkov certainly does, and imbues the hitman's wife with a tender humanity. She does not weep, wail and moan so much as have to get on with life. Life is too tenuous for such extravagant luxuries as externalised grief.
In terms style, I find Kurkov's writing similar to Haruki Murakami's. They both write sparingly, often refusing to use convoluted language and prose though never dumbing down the content of their novels. Equally, both are capable of the most horrific brutality and horror (witness the man skinning scene in Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle) matched with tender humanity, sometimes fleeting, sometimes not; yet often grand passions are eschewed and there is the recognition that relationships are based on more than that simple passion.
But Kurkov is more comic than Murakami and often his fantastic is less fantastical. Kurkov is more of an absurdist and relishes in the contractions inherent in post-Soviet Ukrainian life. He has a heart but never wears it on his sleeve. Thus he achieves a balance between what might be excessively throw away comic or grim mordancy.
A recommended read certainly. As are all of Kurkov's novels but this is perhaps the best place to start. It contains in microcosm all that you will find in Kurkov's other novels. Is Kurkov going to change your life? I'm not sure, but how many writers really do? Such claims are usually nonsense and self-aggrandising. What Kurkov does do is give an insightful look into post-Soviet Ukraine (and by extension Russia), whilst providing more than mere bland escapism or a grim social commentary. He balances out the two perfectly, and the novel is pitched between the two, rather than swaying from one side to the other in an uneasy, if not down right queasy, sea roll. He is easy to read but not simple. The translation is fine and you never feel like you are reading a novel that has been translated. The ideas and language come across elegantly and sparsely. It is a pleasure to read. I've read all four Kurkov novels in English and I do believe I will read any more as and when they are released.