A couple of years ago, I flew to Kiev with my Ukrainian wife and our 18-month-old son. Arriving at Borispol International Airport we steeled ourselves for the extended, Soviet-style entry formalities. Arriving at the terminal building, we were surprised to encounter an official holding up a sign with our name on it. Moments later, having been hurried to the head of the passport queue and waved through customs, we were seated in the plutocratic softness of an S600 Mercedes, feeling like the Beckhams. The car, it turned out, belonged to a family friend, a Kiev businessman who, informed of our arrival, had called ahead and made certain arrangements. In so doing, he had allowed us to glimpse the key to his success. In his country, he behaved as though anything was possible, because it was.
Naturally, from time to time, there is a price to pay. In Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov's satirical bestseller about Ukrainian life, Viktor Zolotaryov, the protagonist, is faced with the need to procure a donor heart for a vital operation on his beloved pet penguin Misha. Where in Kiev can he find another penguin heart? The respected surgeon who is willing to perform the operation for extra cash mentions that "the heart of a three- or four-year-old child would serve". Leaving the consultation, Viktor is plunged into thought. "Something was wrong with this life, he thought, walking with downcast eyes . . . Beneath every surface, inside every tree, every person, lurked an invisible alien something. The seeming reality of everything was only a relic of childhood."
Existential malaise is only part of Viktor's problem: pursued by the mafia, he eventually has to take Misha's seat on an Antarctica-bound flight, leaving behind the (still recuperating) penguin that he had hoped to repatriate.
Death and the Penguin's sequel, Penguin Lost, opens with Viktor wanting to atone for his abandonment of Misha - to try to reinstate that "relic of childhood". Offered the chance to return to Kiev with a new identity, he eagerly takes it. Returning to the city, he visits the grave of a friend - readers will remember the lugubrious Pidpaly - and blunders into a funeral. He is detained by the vigorous, ambit- ious Andrey Pavlovich, a "businessman" attempting to buy respectability by running for election as a people's deputy. Pavlovich offers Viktor a job as his election agent, and success in this role enables Viktor to uncover leads as to Misha's whereabouts. The trail leads to Moscow, and from there, almost fatally, to Chechnya. Viktor finds himself working in a private crematorium, disposing of the dead on both sides of the war.
Kurkov is a writer without literary pretension: there are no claims to gravity, no flourishing of credentials in his work. He is no Pelevin, and this novel is a little sketchier than its predecessor, but the stories he tells are rich, authentic and entertaining. They also capture a particularly Ukrainian spirit - a mixture of surrealism, stubbornness and wit.
Kurkov has been described as a cross between John le Carre and Mikhail Bulgakov, but the thriller element of his novels is more reminiscent of Eric Ambler, while the surrealism recalls Evelyn Waugh. Kurkov's stories provide fascinating insights into Ukrainian life, both under communism and post-independence. He satirises the filthy business of Ukrainian politics while showing how enjoyable it is to associate with men so rich and powerful, they can get anything done.
Life in Kurkov's country is one of whirlwind courtships and reversals, fuelled by a tremendous honesty about money, sex and desire. "Sloppy sort of place, Moscow," Andrey Pavlovich says, meaning that Ukraine, not Russia, is the place to go if you want to live intensely. I would not disagree.