‘I’m not petrified of battle any extra’: Demise and the Penguin creator Andrey Kurkov on life in Kyiv | Andrey Kurkov


Even newly arrived in London, 1,300 miles away from Ukraine, Andrey Kurkov feels as if he’s in a battle zone. His cellphone – its settings nonetheless monitoring the situation west of Kyiv the place he’s primarily based – buzzes consistently with warnings of air raids. Ukrainians have all downloaded these apps. The font and design are the identical as our Covid apps. Over the course of our hour-long assembly, a siren blares out 3 times. How do you get used to that?

He shrugs. “The principle factor is that you’re drained on a regular basis. Everyone seems to be sleeping badly. Sirens are going off 5 occasions an evening. You don’t essentially need to rise up and depart the home when that occurs. However you get up and go to sleep consistently and attempt to determine whether or not you need to depart the home …”

At first, everybody went dutifully to the shelters each time the sirens went off, he explains. However after a when you grow to be blase and also you don’t hassle: life is just too brief and also you be taught to take your possibilities. “Formally, you’re purported to go right down to the shelters however not everybody does. I assume you can name it Russian roulette,” he smiles.

The remains of a shopping centre in Kyiv.The stays of a buying centre in Kyiv. {Photograph}: Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Photos/Rex/Shutterstock

Over the previous month, Kurkov, 60, has discovered himself in an uncommon and surprising place. As Ukraine’s most well-known and profitable residing author (he has been described as “the Ukrainian Murakami”) – and the author most translated into English, to not point out greater than 30 different languages – immediately, he’s in demand on the worst time and for the worst causes. He has invites to talk all around the world, in particular person and on Zoom. He has a weekly slot on BBC Radio 4 – Letter From Ukraine, a private account of his each day life. In line with Nielsen E-book knowledge, gross sales of his books in translation within the UK are up greater than 800%.

You’re purported to go right down to the shelters, however not everybody does. I assume you can name it Russian rouletteAndrey Kurkov

However he has no intention of leaving Ukraine and tells me that he will likely be returning dwelling in a couple of days. His English spouse, Elizabeth Sharp, a instructor, is there, as are two of his three grownup youngsters. They’re volunteering: working with refugees, educating English. All of them discovered themselves stunned at how rapidly you adapt to the worst circumstances. “Firstly, you’re in a state of shock,” he says. “However then you definately simply adapt to it psychologically. I’m not petrified of battle any extra. You simply get this sense of fatalism. That what will likely be will likely be. And also you simply need to carry on residing and do no matter you may within the circumstances. It does offer you this type of vitality. And a conviction that it’s attainable to combat in opposition to a drive of evil that’s larger than you might be.”

Kurkov doesn’t seem sad to be a spokesman for the nuances of a whole tradition, and he comes throughout as optimistic, motivated even. We meet at a restaurant in north London, the place the proprietor may be very excited to serve somebody from Ukraine and needs to specific tearful admiration and bestow further baklava, saying: “The Ukrainian individuals are an inspiration to us all!” Kurkov beams in response (“I do know! My son could make a molotov cocktail! I’m so proud!”), despite the fact that it is a dialog he should now endure with each new non-Ukrainian he meets, as will most likely be the case for the remainder of his life. “I believed I’d misplaced my sense of humour,” he laughs, “however I used to be doing a public occasion final night time and I discovered myself improvising all these unhappy jokes … As soon as the adrenaline will get going, you get your sense of humour again.”

Kurkov’s cat, Pepin.Kurkov’s cat, Pepin. {Photograph}: @AKhurkov/Twitter

Our dialog is in Russian, the language of his mother and father and of a couple of third of Ukrainians, as a result of he’s uninterested in talking English. Russian is – and can stay – the language of his fiction. Earlier than the battle, he was recognized in literary circles as somebody who at all times had one thing amusing or wry to say – whether or not about post-Soviet life or life basically. Even now he peppers his Twitter feed about life underneath Russian bombardment with footage of his cat: “Pepin the cat is completely happy. It’s not simple to be completely happy when you’re refugee. Even if you’re a cat-refugee.” (Sadly his hamster, Semyon – additionally talked about in dispatches – died in mid March.)

Kurkov’s novels are playful, embrace the surreal and infrequently function animal characters. The bestseller Demise and the Penguin is about an obituary author who adopts a penguin known as Misha. There’s, delightfully, additionally a human Misha within the ebook, who’s known as Misha-non-penguin. His early books had titles comparable to The Adventures of Child Vacuum Cleaner Gosha and The World of Mr Massive Brow.

Kurkov’s 2018 novel Gray Bees, had already confronted the battle with Russia. The ebook is ready within the no man’s land between loyalist and separatist forces within the Donbas area, and follows the plight of a retired official turned beekeeper as he strikes his hives to flee to security.

He tells me his work is hottest in translation in French, German and Japanese, in addition to English, and final yr he spent a lot of the yr as a visiting professor within the US. “It has at all times been the case that regardless of the place I’m on the planet individuals are extra excited about listening to what I’ve to say about Ukraine than they’re excited about my books,” he says.

When requested what we are able to do to assist Ukraine, his first thought is to suggest nonfiction. “Discover out extra about Ukraine. Examine our historical past: Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe; Anne Applebaum’s Purple Famine; Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. It’s actually essential to grasp the distinction between Russia and Ukraine. If you happen to actually need to find out about Ukraine’s historical past and why that is taking place, learn these books.” Recommending Ukrainian writers is tougher, he says. “Our literature may be very introverted, inward-looking. It’s directed in direction of those that already perceive what’s being mentioned. Open, outward-looking literature with a common message is tougher to search out. That’s extra within the course that I write.” The books that do go that “common” check for him embrace Candy Darusya: A Story of Two Villages, by Maria Matios – an epic household saga set in a village on the Romanian-Ukrainian border – and Markiyan Kamysh’s Stalking the Atomic Metropolis: Life Among the many Decadent and Wicked of Chornobyl (popping out in translation in July) – an autobiographical novel about life within the exclusion zone round Pripyat, instructed by the son of a Chernobyl liquidator.

For me, there are two Zelenskiys – the primary I didn’t like in any respect. However as a battle hero is the place he actually excelsAndrey Kurkov

Nowadays Kurkov has set the common apart, together with the brand new novel he was writing, to concentrate on analysing the right here and now. For the reason that battle started, he has skilled a change of coronary heart about Ukraine’s president. “For me there are two Zelenskiys. The primary model – the pre-war Zelenskiy – I didn’t like in any respect. I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t like that he surrounded himself together with his mates from his earlier profession, all these individuals who don’t know something about politics or about something, actually.” That is mentioned with severe disapproval. “However his position as a battle hero … That’s a task the place he actually excels. The federal government is functioning. All the things round him is working precisely because it ought to. I love that.” Can Zelenskiy hope to remain secure and keep in Kyiv? “Oh sure. I feel he’ll be capable of proceed that, and to remain in Kyiv.” A glint within the eye: “My solely concern is that when the battle is over he’ll return to being the identical pre-war Zelenskiy.” Kurkov is eager to stress that this criticism is his private view and never essentially one that’s extensively shared. Zelenskiy received 73% of the votes within the presidential elections in 2019.

President Zelenskiy in Kyiv.President Zelenskiy in Kyiv. {Photograph}: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters

Surprisingly – given Kurkov’s popularity as a superb satirist – Zelenskiy’s comedy is the other of a redeeming issue. “He was at all times common with individuals who have a horrible sense of humour and are poorly educated. His humour is sort of a type of political model of Benny Hill – if Benny Hill had bought paid to make jokes concerning the politicians of the day.”

What’s his evaluation of why this occurred now? And what comes subsequent? “The rationale this battle took everybody without warning is as a result of so many politicians within the west actually needed to keep up a optimistic perspective in direction of Russia for financial causes. They needed to commerce with Russia. And so they didn’t assume Putin would do something to jeopardise that commerce relationship. Seems, Putin spits on any type of financial reasoning, he spits on hundreds of useless troopers … For him an important factor is to go down in historical past as the person who re-created the Soviet Union – ‘He made Russia nice once more’. Nevertheless it hasn’t labored out. Whereas he’s not useless, the battle will proceed.”

Ukrainians preparing molotov cocktails in a yard in Kyiv.Ukrainians making ready molotov cocktails in a yard in Kyiv. {Photograph}: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

He provides: “Putin is previous. He isn’t considering rationally. He lived underground through the pandemic for the most effective a part of two years. He’s paranoid. He doesn’t like chatting with anybody at a distance of lower than 5 metres. He’s fearful of being poisoned, of viruses. He’s been sitting there in his bunker and enthusiastic about what his legacy will likely be. So this had grow to be his idée fixe. He’s obsessive about the autumn of the Soviet Union. For him it is a horrible tragedy, which have to be reversed. That is his mission. It’s not rational. It’s simply how it’s.”

I don’t assume my mother and father would have survived the shock of the invasion, had been they nonetheless aliveAndrey Kurkov

Kurkov’s mother and father died two years in the past. They had been from a technology that didn’t have to make nationwide distinctions, as a result of they felt “Soviet”. His father was a pilot, his mom a physician. He remembers fondly how his mom used her clout at a army hospital to get him a visa when his spouse lastly accepted his proposal of marriage. (Elizabeth first got here to Russia on a scholar trade within the Nineteen Eighties. He proposed to her 3 times earlier than she mentioned sure.) In some methods he’s glad his mother and father aren’t alive to see this second. “A number of weeks in the past, on Fb, there have been tons of of posts by individuals round my age who had misplaced their mother and father to coronary heart assaults. All brought on by the shock of the invasion. I don’t assume my mother and father would have survived it, had been they nonetheless alive.”

Kurkov was born in Russia, in what was then Leningrad, and is now St Petersburg. Does he assume he’ll ever return to the nation inside his lifetime? “Effectively, I’ll be 61 years previous quickly. So … No. I’ve crossed Russia out. And Crimea. The newspapers in Russian have written about me as an enemy and a Russophobe. And we’re speaking about a spot the place 80% of the inhabitants help Putin. So I’ve zero curiosity in visiting. I’ve no real interest in their tradition, their historical past.”

As we’re ending up, the siren on his cellphone sounds once more. “There it goes. That’s the place my spouse is …” he says, sadly. However, then, he provides with a wink: “Expertise is an effective factor. It means you may sleep with the window closed. As a result of the app will inform you in the event that they’re coming.”


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