Red in tooth and claw

<strong>The President's Last Love</strong>

Andrey Kurkov <em>Harvill Secker, 400pp, £12.99</em>

Life in the former Soviet Union is sometimes compared to a zoo. Predatory oligarchs are the big beasts in the post-Communist jungle, and their wildlife antics, including sex and murder, lend colour to otherwise dull reports of takeovers and mergers. In a way, the journalistic cliché merely updates Orwell's Animal Farm. The nature of bandit capitalism is red in tooth and claw. Yet the comic novels of Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov take the zoological metaphor literally.

Kurkov's masterpiece Picnic on Ice (or Death and the Penguin, as it became in English translation) tells the story of Viktor, a struggling writer in chaotic 1990s Kiev who adopts a penguin called Misha because the city's post-Soviet zoo can no longer afford to feed it. The "death" of the title refers to a job the hero gets writing obituaries of people who suddenly begin to die in mysterious and bizarre circumstances.

Ukraine emerges as a place almost dehumanised by corruption and gangsters, but the satire never feels harsh or one-dimensional. Indeed Kurkov lampoons the morally grotesque post-Soviet world in much the same way as his fellow Ukrainians Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Gogol used magic and surrealism to write fables of oppression under Stalin or the tsar.

His latest novel, The President's Last Love, describes the turbulent life story of a Ukrainian president of the near future. It was originally published in Russian, in 2004, a few months before the Orange Revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko to power. His face appears on the cover of the Russian edition of the novel - or, at any rate, half of it does. The other half belongs to Putin, who also has a walk-on role in Kurkov's novel, hosting celebrations, in 2013, of the fourth cen tenary of the Romanov dynasty.

Such a misfit is intriguing. The aptly named Russian leader was "put in" to power in the first place (rather like our own prime minister) without the fuss of an election, while Yushchenko's supporters took to the streets to overturn a rigged poll. His fictional counterpart, Sergey Bunin, who is also Kurkov's narrator, wakes from heart transplant surgery at the beginning of The President's Last Love to find his body covered in freckles due to a poisoning. The same thing happened to Yushchenko, now completely pockmarked, six months after the book was published. It's a remarkable case of life imitating art, or perhaps of would-be assassins reading novels for inspiration.

Other problems cast a shadow over the president's hospital bed. An oligarch is threatening to cut off the nation's electricity in a subplot oddly prescient of last year's dispute between Russia and Ukraine over the gas supply, while the Vatican wants to sanctify the kitchen garden of a crippled widow in western Ukraine after it begins to yield "miracle" potatoes the size of footballs. Widows bulk large in the novel, as they did in the former Soviet Union itself. One woman demands visiting rights to her deceased husband's heart now transplanted into the president's chest.

Almost a replica of what happened to Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution, when his fragile government collapsed amid political intrigue and the warring ambitions of his supporters, The President's Last Love is a novel about the corrupting power of innocence. There are some lovely comic dissonances between high office and low humanity as Kurkov charts Bunin's various romantic attachments, and how they enabled him to climb the political ladder. But the narrative structure is impossibly complicated as the book is divided into three separate timeframes, roughly corresponding to the early, middle and later years of the hero. These are shuffled every two or three pages for no obvious reason.

The overall effect isn't helped by the poor quality of the uncredited translation, with its broken syntax and sloppy punctuation. Here, for example, is Bunin describing the "national soap opera" that is Ukraine: "There was my spinning top of a country, reeling west one minute and east the next, and nothing I could do about it. There were enemies, both secret and open. And there were also those for me, again both secret and - some on my team - open."

Authenticity of language is important in Kurkov's fiction because the text itself is shot through with political significances that may get lost by indirect translation. The novelist is criticised by some intellectuals in Kiev because he writes in Russian instead of Ukrainian. (He was born in St Petersburg but emigrated to Ukraine with his family at the age of three.) In Russia, on the other hand, he is persona non grata because he pokes fun at the Kremlin. Two years ago, the Russian delegation to the Paris Book Fair lobbied unsuccessfully for his invitation to be withdrawn. It was another example of life imitating art, the invisible hand of violence lurking in his novels and beyond.

Hugh Barnes's "Gannibal: the Moor of Petersburg" is published by Profile Books

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq