The Milkman in the Night by Andrey Kurkov trans. Amanda Love Darragh (Vintage – August, 2012)
The Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov is perhaps best known for his earlier novel Death and the Penguin. The Milkman in the Night is his latest work and in my opinion is perhaps even more elaborate and accomplished as it involves more characters and plot strands. Like his previous works this inspired novel is hugely entertaining yet not without a sarcastic tone, and if we read between the lines we are sure to find a political bias.
In style this narrative voice is halfway between Raymond Chandler and Monty Python. Although Kurkov’s work might be shelved under the genre of Noir fiction there are far too many shades of white, and it is far too literary in scope to dismiss it as mere genre fiction.
Structurally The Milkman in the Night is not one but three stories that are skilfully and cunningly woven together in an almost filmic manner. The short punchy chapters propel the story from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger. The first story-strand is that of Irina; a ‘dishonoured’ single mother from the outskirts of Kiev. Every day she leaves her baby with her elderly mother and travels to the city centre where she sells her breastmilk for next to nothing, while feeding her own baby formula milk from the supermarket. There seems to be no end to her humiliation until she meets, Egor, the love of her life; and then everything changes. The second story is that of Semyon, a security guard who becomes a bodyguard to the influential parliamentarian Gennady Ilyich. One of his daily tasks is to drive milk churns to a secluded orphanage where the milk is made into cheese. Eventually we learn that the milk he carts around is not ordinary milk but highly sought-after breastmilk. When Semyon wakes up one morning covered in blood without remembering having left the house, he asks his friend to keep an eye on him. It soon becomes clear that Semyon suffers from somnambulism and, without his own knowledge, lives a controversial double life as a sleepwalker. In the meantime his wife Veronika befriends Darya, the widow of a talented pharmacist. The third story is that of Dmitry, a baggage handler at Kiev airport who comes across a suitcase full of suspicious looking medicine. Encouraged by his colleagues, Boris and Zhenya, he decides to divert from the path of righteousness and make some extra money by selling the ampoules as an anti-cancer drug. Needless to say the baggage handler takes on more than he can handle.
To cut a long and action-packed story short, and without wanting to give too much away, we learn that a conspiracy called ‘Embassy of the Moon’ is behind some of these events. It is a conspiracy that combines the three main agents of power; politics, religion and the medical profession. Normally we would deem such a conspiracy as evil as it seems wrong to deprive babies of breastmilk or to hypnotise friends and foes to keep them in check, but ultimately the concepts of good and evil simply dissolve to give way to a greater purpose - pure power. There is no black or white as the end sanctifies all means. Furthermore, we are reminded that despite all ideals, self-serving or otherwise, this is a country where nothing ever changes except perhaps the name of the president.
Kurkov is a true master when it comes to juxtaposing contradicting ideas and emotions of which the most obvious are death vs. birth, rich vs. poor and the mundane vs. the mysterious - to mention but a few. The title itself gives an indication of this tension between contrasting forces ie. the kind vs. the hostile (or at least that is my understanding of it after having read the book). It would be appropriate to call Kurkov a surrealist. After all, Breton’s manifesto opens with some lines that can easily be applied to Kurkov’s work:
The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality...
As a result of this juxtaposition we can say that his work takes on a mythical notion; reminiscent of something Shakespearian - A Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance, as indeed a nocturnal transfiguration befalls Kiev and its citizens night after night and plays tricks on them.
Furthermore, there is an obvious link between Kurkov and his countryman Mikhail Bulgakov. Both are inspired by the supernatural to the extent that they adopt a sense of the absurd. For example; why does Fluffy the cat return from the grave to fight the neighbour’s bulldog or why is Darya so keen to buy some discounted shirts for her embalmed husband who does nothing but sit ‘dead still’ in an armchair all day long? The dream of immortality is simply taken to its ultimate conclusion. These literally fabulous concepts are however, grounded by kitchen-sink conversations and are made palatable by endless chats over cups of decent and instant coffee.
Another detail that is noteworthy is how Kurkov assigns his pets very active - even heroic roles, elevating them to human status with the same personality range as their two-legged counterparts. Again, this is something highly reminiscent of Bulgakov, although you might be relieved to know that Kurkov shies away from actually giving his pets voices or having them smoke cigars.
This translation is very subtle and seductive. Besides, it really seems that Kurkov has found some kind of formula to tell his thought-provoking story even though at times it seems to flow almost too smoothly or should I say artificially. Nevertheless, Kurkov’s brilliant images and his almost outrageous imagination make this a highly enjoyable page-turner. Despite portraying an exaggerated reality there is a critical, even cryptic sense of truth that makes fun of an unwholesome approach to running a government; no matter how holy or wholesome it appears to be.