I’m already behind on reading and reviewing the pile of 20 books I selected (here), but I’m not a challenge completist! Anything that spurs me to reduce my TBR by a book or two is good. Today, I have two in translation for you.
The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov
Translated from the Russian by Amanda Love Darragh
I’ve been meaning to read Kurkov for so long: I’ve owned several books by this Ukrainian author for ages – all the ‘Penguin’ novels, and The Case of the General’s Thumb, but I turned to the most recent one I own from 2009, published in translation in 2013, to start off with. Kurkov is famed for his black humour, post-Soviet comment, and elements of surrealism in his writing – and this novel combines all of those!
Igor is in his thirties and lives at home with his divorced mother, Igor doesn’t work, disabled by persistent headaches. One day, their neighbour introduces them to Stepan, a gardener and handyman, who agrees to do some work for them – he’ll live in their shed. When Igor sees Stepan’s old tattoo on his shoulder, an unreadable blur, he suggests taking a photo of it and getting his best friend Kolyan who works in a Kiev bank as a computer bod to decipher it. ‘Ochakov, 1957, Efim Chagin’s House’. This sparks something in Stepan, and Igor agrees to go on a trip to Ochakov with him, where Stepan breaks into a house and recovers three suitcases he says his father had hidden. One of them contains a vintage police uniform complete with gun. Igor needs a retro fancy-dress outfit for Kolyan’s birthday party, but when he puts it on and leaves the house dressed in it, after a little tipple to loosen him up, things are strange outside – dark and empty until he gets to the wine factory where he surprises a man sneaking out with some wine, who is scared stiff to be caught by a policeman. The uniform has taken him back to 1957 – and there is the mystery of the suitcases to be solved, and who is Efim Chagin? He wakes up back home with the uniform neatly folded beside him, and Stepan has disappeared. Igor must don the uniform again to return to the past, but the past is a dangerous place.
I loved this book. The time-travel element was done so well. It was full of the black humour I’d hoped for, and the characters were certainly quirky. The contrast between the present day and the police-state of the past, with Igor as an unlikely police officer, came through more and more strongly as the novel progressed – but even in the Soviet past, there was room for con-men. I really want to read more by Kurkov now. (9/10)
Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol
Translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan
I can’t remember how I found this book. I know I already owned it by the time Jackie reviewed it here some years ago. It has lurked in my bedside bookcase ever since, until this summer when it made it into my 20 Books pile – not least because July is Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month hosted by Stu. Piñol hails from Barcelona, and this is his first novel, published in 2002 in Catalan, 2005 in English translation. If you enjoyed Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, you’ll get along with Cold Skin – but be warned it veers off into weird Jeff Vandermeer territory to explore the human condition, rather than staying with horror.
Our narrator is the new weather official, who is arriving by ship at the Antarctic island which is to be his outpost for a year’s work. The man whom he is replacing can’t be found though, the only other inhabitant of the island is the lighthouse-keeper, Gruner, an Austrian who is not of wholly sound mind any more. The ship has to leave, and night falls: right from those first hours of darkness, there are horrors in store for the young man as hundreds of amphibian monsters crawl all over the outside of his house and ululate into the night. One tries to get in…
It was not a human arm. … I could see that the three bones at the elbow were smaller and pointier than ours. Not a speck of fat; pure muscle coated with shark skin. But the hand was worst of all. The fingers were joined by a membrane that well all the way up to the nails.
Confusion was followed by a wave of panic. I shouted in terror and jumped out of the chair at the same time. A multitude of voices answered my cry. They were everywhere. The house was surrounded by unearthly screams. … I was so terrified that my own fear felt unreal. (p27-8)
So far, so traditional, but Piñol doesn’t dwell for long in Gothic fantasy, while there is a subcurrent of horror and suspense throughout the novel, it has much more to say about the ‘monsters’. The narrator is forced to move into the solidly-built lighthouse with Gruner, where he begins to discover the true nature of the amphibians, who are semi-humanoid in appearance. The locked room nature of the two men’s effective prison on the island and their relationship in which they hate each other, but are forced upon each other, scaffolds the plot, but inside that are subtle layers of sub-plot involving the amphibians about colonialism and violence; others reminded me of events in the film The Shape of Water. I couldn’t help but wonder too if Jeff Vandermeer was inspired by this book – The Southern Reach Trilogy also features a lighthouse and humanoid monsters.
The author never gives the narrator or island names, nor sets a time-frame – it feels between WWI & WWII, certainly no later. The suspense and claustrophobia in the book was palpable, at 240 pages there is no waffle and I couldn’t stop reading, but it also made me think. I agree totally with Jackie – the ending was super too. There doesn’t appear to be anything else by Piñol translated into English which is a shame, but I’d really recommend Cold Skin. (9.5/10)