When the Soviet Union collapsed, Andrey Kurkov was thirty, with manuscripts for a novel, then called “The World of Mr. Bickford, ”and a children’s book,“ The Adventures of Baby Vacuum Cleaner Gosha. ” (For years, the English-language press, mishearing Kurkov’s pronunciation of “Bickford,” has been under the impression that he also wrote a different novel, “The World of Mr. Big Forehead.”) “We had complete chaos in Ukraine, ”He said the other day. “No laws, no rules.” A good time to be a writer. He borrowed money from friends, paid a printer, and found six tons of paper in Kazakhstan. “I was able to transport this paper, free of charge, by Ukrainian Railways. There was a respect there for writers. ” He discovered that some of the paper was meant for wrapping food. The printing technicians were drunk. He managed a run of seventy-five thousand copies. “Then I was in trouble,” he said.
He was living in a studio flat. Piles of books reached the ceiling. “My wife and I had a passage from the sofa to the kitchen to the toilet,” he said. “I made myself a cardboard with a description, ‘I AM THE AUTHOR, ‘and, every free moment, I would go with two bags of books to the street and try to sell them. ” Kyiv was dangerous. A gangster offered free protection. “Even criminals had respect for writers!” Kurkov said.
Kurkov was in town to deliver the Arthur Miller lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival. Past lecturers: Rushdie, Hitchens, Sotomayor, Hillary Clinton. “The topic I was given: Freedom to Write,” he said. He wore a yellow shirt and had a short, whitish beard. Countenance: impish. He was sitting down to dinner at Ukrainian National Home. The one on Second Avenue that’s not Veselka.
“I write in Russian. I am not a Russian writer, ”he said. “Literature is dead in Russia.” This would be part of the speech. “Russians, during the past twenty years, agreed to be left without any kind of freedom, to be censored, and it was done voluntarily,” he went on. He blamed a fatalism evident in the literary canon — Dostoyevsky (“People who believe that life is horrible, they will read Dostoyevsky”), Tolstoy (“He was not, I would say, a nice guy”). “Chekhov, I like,” Kurkov said. “The only one who was making people laugh was Gogol — Ukrainian!”
He ordered herring. “Meat jelly,” he read off the menu. “Would you risk? And then I’ll take something not very Ukrainian, which is called lamb chops. ”
Kurkov cooks at home — usually Thai. “But, the evening before the war, I had friends over, and I cooked very good borscht, and we were drinking very good wine,” he said. “The next morning, we were woken up by explosions.” He got caught in a traffic jam fleeing Kyiv. “My wife noticed a missile flying over our car.” He thought he’d never see the city again. “I had a phone call saying that I was on the blacklist in Russia.” For decades, Kurkov, who has published some forty books, has written every day. “But I could not write anything,” he said.
Kurkov was born near Leningrad and moved to Kyiv when he was a toddler. His family lived on the grounds of a pediatric-tuberculosis sanatorium. He occupied himself with medical books, with fifteen hundred cacti that he hoped to turn into a business, and with animals. “I have many animals in my books because all my pets in childhood — they died, usually tragic deaths,” he said. Parrot (escaped), fish (tossed out the window by his brother after a cactus-business dispute), miniature rabbit (“I was given this rabbit when the rabbit was almost dead. So I’m not sure it’s my fault”). Two hamsters died, and then the lone survivor went off a fifth-floor balcony.
After dinner (“Wonderful chops! ”), Kurkov ducked into a Ukrainian dive bar next door. A man with dreadlocks and many rings sat down. “Do you know that you are in a Ukrainian bar?” Kurkov asked.
“Yes, my love!” the man replied.
“Are you a musician?”
“No, I am a writer, a curator, and a poet.”
“I am a Ukrainian writer, and you are an American writer!”
“Well, I’m a Trinidadian writer. My poetry is abstract prose. My inspirations are Jack Kerouac, Nikki Giovanni, and Bob Kaufman. ”
They clasped hands. “I think writers know each other,” the man said. Kurkov looked delighted.
Kurkov was getting sleepy. Everywhere he goes, people ask him when the war will end. He does not know. “I’m a pathological optimist,” he said. “For many years, before writing, I would listen to depressive classical music, to lower down my positive mood.” He sees little hope for Russia, but who knows? Years ago, he wrote a novel in which an angel is perplexed by the absence of Soviets in Heaven. “So he goes down in order to find an honest, proper person who will be the first Soviet,” Kurkov said. Does he find one? “Yeah,” he said. “But I really do not remember if this person makes it to Heaven. I have written too much. ” ♦