Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov: ‘I felt guilty writing fiction in a time of war’ | Andrey Kurkov

Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov: ‘I felt guilty writing fiction in a time of war’ | Andrey Kurkov

The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov was having dinner with friends at his home in Kyiv on the evening of 24 February 2022 when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Within hours he was advised that his name probably featured on a Russian list targeting prominent Ukrainian figures for arrest, or worse, and he should leave the city. As Kurkov and his wife joined the thousands of Ukrainians who grabbed what possessions they could and headed to the west of the country, he began a stream of articles, speeches, interviews, broadcasts and other interventions – made at home and abroad – to explain the plight and position of his compatriots. He returned to Kyiv four months after the invasion, and the city has remained his base ever since for his continuing role as one of the best known and most assiduous advocates of a free and independent Ukraine.

Kurkov was 70 pages into a new novel when the invasion happened, but found that, “while I could produce quite a lot of journalism, I couldn’t write fiction”, he says. “Last summer I managed 30 more pages but then had another block. It somehow felt too guilty a pleasure to write fiction in a time of war. It felt like something sinful. To write a novel you also need to concentrate on the world of the novel, not on your reality. And the reality didn’t let me think about anything else. It was like being imprisoned by reality, checking the news every hour all day and then waking up several times a night to check it again.”

A quirk of the international publishing schedule means that, despite his pause from writing fiction, Kurkov’s latest novel, The Silver Bone, will be published in the UK and US next month. It is his 12th novel to be translated into English, and the first volume of a new crime series entitled The Kyiv Mysteries. By remarkable coincidence the book opens in a chaotically violent and war-ravaged Kyiv. The very first line of The Silver Bone sees the father of Kurkov’s protagonist, electrical engineering student turned detective Samson Kolechko, brutally killed. By the third sentence Samson himself is badly injured. But while Kurkov is now intimately familiar with the dangers of life during wartime in Kyiv, he was writing the The Silver Bone several years before Putin’s incursion, and the novel is set more than 100 years before the current war began.

“I’ve always been interested in the period around the end of the first world war,” he says. “One of my first unpublished novels dealt with events at that time, and this book is set in 1919, during the four-year war in which Ukraine declared its independence following the collapse of the Russian empire and then lost it again.” Bolsheviks, White Russians and various warring Ukrainian factions swapped power every few months. “Within four years power changed hands 14 times. It was a time of incredible instability,” he continues. “Some people stayed in Kyiv through the whole thing, adapting to the changes; others retreated with the losing factions; many were killed. It was a tough and dangerous time, and also a fascinating one. And here we are again – whether to turn it into a Soviet or a Russian republic or something else, Russia is trying to take over Ukraine.”

Kurkov himself embodies many of the complications of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, as well as the tensions within Ukraine. He was born in 1961 near what was then Leningrad, where his father was an air force test pilot and his mother a doctor. His father was posted to Ukraine when Kurkov was two, and he has lived there ever since. Kurkov writes his fiction in his first language of Russian, although he writes journalism and other prose in Ukrainian. His work has been banned in Russia since 2014.

Kurkov first came to international attention with his 1996 novel Death and the Penguin – published in English in 2001 – which showcased his attractively off-kilter blend of satire, surrealism, dark humour, social commentary and rich characterisation. His focus on detailed aspects of Ukrainian life, politics and crime, allied to a journalistic bent and the fast-moving nature of recent Ukrainian history, has meant that The Silver Bone is not his first book to have exhibited a kind of unexpected prescience by the time it was published. In the past, Kurkov’s fiction has included events as varied as a gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine, and the poisoning of a presidential candidate, both of which subsequently came to pass. His 2018 novel Grey Bees (published in English in 2022) focused on the consequences of Russian aggression and was set in the contested Donbas region of Ukraine in the period after Putin’s 2014 land grab, which is often cited as the real beginning of the current conflict.

A flock of crows flies over downtown Kyiv. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

The genesis of The Silver Bone came when a reader gave Kurkov a large cache of Bolshevik secret police files from the post-first world war period. “The papers belonged to her late father, who was a KGB officer in Soviet times and later worked for the Ukrainian secret service,” he says. “They contained handwritten documents by people accused of various offences, explaining why they could not be guilty. Their crimes are often things that would not be considered criminal in any normal time or any normal country,” he explains. “For instance, citizens had a right to have cattle, but had no right to sell meat or leather. The punishment for private trade was a minimum of three years in prison. There were bizarre taxes on things such as furniture and underwear. The documents were packed with these strange details of daily life in Kyiv during wartime, and it was this texture I wanted to get across in the novel.”

It is White Russian Cossacks who murder Samson’s father in the opening scene. At the time they were fighting for control of the city with the new Soviet Red Army, as well as a wide spectrum of other political and paramilitary groupings. Samson’s father’s head is split in two by a blow from a sabre, and another slash removes Samson’s ear. But in a characteristically Kurkovian detail, Samson deftly catches the severed ear before it hits the gutter and keeps it safe in a box. He then comes to the unexpected realisation that he now has an altered experience of hearing, one that gives him access to conversations normally out of earshot. The crime story duly revolves around Samson overhearing the plotting of a couple of renegade Russian soldiers.

Kurkov says the crime narrative, and the figure of the detective in the form of young Samson seeking justice and order amid the mayhem of war, gave him a way of exploring and illuminating a society under extreme stress. The first two Kyiv Mysteries books were published in Ukraine before the Russian invasion, but Kurkov says he often gets more attention abroad than at home. “I think people in Ukraine are generally reading less fiction at the moment. And the fact that I write in Russian means I get fewer reviews at home. Of course I have my readers, and my books are translated into Ukrainian, but there are people who say that real Ukrainian literature is written in Ukrainian.”

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Kurkov has spoken in the past about how the use of the Russian language in Ukraine has waxed and waned as an issue over the years. It is now a potent flashpoint. He points out that Ukraine is in fact a multicultural and multilingual country, not just in terms of Russian but also with minority Crimean Tatar and Hungarian speakers and writers. He says before the invasion around 40% to 45% of Ukrainians could speak Russian. “A disproportionate amount of these people have been killed in the east by the Russian army. Many others have become refugees abroad. I think there is a good chance that after the war it will be more like 20% Russian speakers, and while their children and grandchildren will be bilingual, the Ukrainian language is a marker of patriotism.”

He says he doesn’t worry about the issue, noting in passing that Kharkiv was once a Ukrainian-speaking city that only became Russian-speaking after the second world war, and that the main language spoken in pre-second world war Lviv was Polish. “These are the historical realities. The main literary language in Ukraine will be Ukrainian. But there will still be a niche for Russian-language poetry and prose.”

Kurkov was communicating mainly in English in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, speaking and writing for a global media. He says for a time he could barely keep up with requests from all over the world, but is now very aware that attention is slipping from the war in Ukraine. “The situation in Gaza is of course occupying and horrifying politicians and the public everywhere. For Putin the ideal would be for China to attack Taiwan; Serbia to attack Kosovo; Venezuela, Guyana; North and South Korea. Anything that takes attention away from Ukraine helps him.”

As for the immediate prospects for the war, Kurkov notes the political problems in passing a much delayed mobilisation bill to increase recruitment to the Ukrainian army and expresses concern over the shortage of ammunition reaching the Ukrainian military. “Ukraine can’t compete with Russia having arms from Iran and North Korea as well as its own supplies. Great Britain is delivering what they promised and so are the Baltic states, who very much understand the dangers. Ukrainian politicians continue to repeat that no negotiations with Russia are possible. But if the west is thinking of forcing Ukraine into negotiations, that will become clear in the absence of new arms deliveries in the next 12 months. Time will tell.”

He reports that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the government still enjoy public support, “but it doesn’t mean they agree with everything he says or does”. As for the general morale, he observes: “I think everybody is traumatised, and almost everybody is trying to hide it. People have been successful in pretending to be tough and to be living the same life as before. Theatres are full. Many museums are open.” The morning he spoke to me from Kyiv, the country had seen significant Russian missile attacks and air raid alerts throughout the night. “It was typical in that you could get some sleep, but not all night. Often people will have to go to work after a sleepless night and so people are of course weary, but they carry on.”

Kurkov was preparing for the second anniversary of the war on 24 February by completing assignments for the international media. He was then intending to return to his unfinished novel, the third part of the Kyiv Mysteries series. “When the war began it felt that while fiction was a good means of communication in a time of peace, it did not feel enough in a time of war. But I dream of it,” he says. “I dream of writing fiction again, so I’m going to have another attempt. If it was a novel about something abstract and remote from reality I probably wouldn’t be able to write it until the end of the war. But because I’m writing about Kyiv in wartime I hope I may now have something more useful to say. Anyway, I’m going to try. We will see.”

The Silver Bone, translated by Boris Dralyuk, is published by MacLehose on 5 March. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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