The doctor takes a small empty powder box, covers the bottom with a piece of cotton wool, Samson then puts his severed ear on it, he closes the box and puts it in the pocket of his field jacket. Then he goes with the doctor who bandaged his wound to bury his father, whose body is still lying on the street. A troop of Cossacks had rushed through the street, one had split his father’s head in half with a saber, another cut off Samson’s right ear. The doctor scolds, clicking his tongue: “Do you walk around the streets these days?”
Nowadays, that is May 11, 1919 in Kyiv. A time of anarchy, the civil war that broke out after the Russian revolution, also characterizes life in the Ukraine, which the Bolsheviks are trying to impose their rule on. The old order has been broken into pieces, the new socialist society is being built, bureaucratically, financially, ideologically, and the old bourgeois society is being cannibalized for it. Red Army soldiers, Cossacks, Chekists act side by side and against each other.
Analogies to the current state of war should not be overrated
Andrei Kurkow describes this without taking sides, as one knows from his other books, without fatal pathos or sensationalism, completely pragmatic. The reactionary and the progressive are inextricably linked, and the people Samson deals with are characterized by an unbelievable, sometimes almost fairytale-like composure. When the power goes off, you know the power plant has run out of firewood. Every day people are requisitioned – sometimes it looks more like looting – billeted, deserted. Or there is a subbotnik – a work assignment for everyone, on Saturdays and without pay, for example: crushing frozen heaps of snow interspersed with garbage that obstruct traffic.
The coming of age in this book begins with a violent cut, that of Samson Teofilowitsch Koletschko and that of socialist society. Samson is hired as an investigator by the militia because he can present facts so beautifully and consistently in his reports. He gets boots, trousers and a leather jacket and a nagant with a wooden holster. Young Nadjeschda becomes his girlfriend, she works at the Statistics Office, and because it’s very close to Samson’s apartment, she moves in there. Samson soon becomes involved with a mysterious case involving sewing patterns, ominous writing on the wall “Your death is coming soon” and a silver bone, the os femoris. There is a crazy, tragic hope of recovery in this case, which is typical for the country.
Andrei Kurkov is the PEN chairman of Ukraine, his novel was published in Kyiv in 2020, so one should not exaggerate analogies between the current state of war after the Russian invasion and the civil war in 1919. The communication, the tireless solidarity that Kurkow talks about is magical in its delight in improvisation, and is motivated by a cautious spirit of optimism. Samson’s severed ear works like a wiretapping transmitter, allowing him to eavesdrop on conversations, in a form of telepathy of his own, even if the box he put the ear in is in a different room or house than himself.
There are various currencies in the city that are traded and paid with, Karbovanza or Kerensky rubles or meal vouchers for the Soviet canteen, there is oatmeal with pork fat or corn porridge with a piece of herring, plus a glass of compote to drink afterwards. There is still no shortage, the resources of the bourgeoisie create an aura of abundance. An aura in which love also takes part. One night, Samson accompanies Nadjeschda on the dark street – the electric light has gone out again: “Can you shoot?” Nadjeschda whispers conspiratorially. “Samson loaded the revolver, looked at the dark sky, as if hidden within itself, and fired a shot there… ‘Thank you,’ Nadezhda whispered into his left ear. And at the same time he felt the touch of her soft, slightly sticky lips there .”