Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov Review

Set in modern day Kiev, an elderly gardener comes to work for Igor, a lazy, unemployed young man, and his mother. Igor helps the gardener decipher his mysterious tattoo which sends the pair to the coastal Ukrainian town of Ochakov where they discover hidden secrets. But Igor finds out something else: when he puts on an old Soviet police uniform, he can travel back in time to 1957 Ochakov!

I suppose you could call the events leading up to it a plot but barely anything happens after Igor discovers that he can time-travel. That’s what really bugged me about this book: it’s so damn sloooooow and ploddingly paced. A lot – too much really – of this book is taken up with Igor’s mundane existence. He hardly does anything and spends his days drinking and eating, occasionally with his gainfully-employed, but still dreary, buddy Kolyan, and generally wandering about aimlessly. Wow, what an exciting, complex main character! 

What does he do with his new-found time-travel ability? He buys fish and courts a fisherman’s wife, a, er, “storyline” that goes nowhere. He talks to a kid who steals wine and then gets him to take photos of the townspeople… zzz… He meets a Soviet gangster while his friend Kolyan gets in trouble with present day gangsters, two developments that were exciting but are maybe less than 3% of the overall novel. Don’t want anything too exciting to happen!

One of the novel’s few good qualities is that Kurkov doesn’t bother mentioning tedious time paradoxes that dog too many time-travel stories and just gets on with things. And regardless of jumping backwards and forwards in time, it’s a straightforward read, I just wish Kurkov was less prone to endless irrelevant digressions. He can write well and he’s at his best with brevity – I highly recommend his novella A Matter of Death and Life over this bloated nonsense. 

Apparently the Ukrainians have a very nostalgic view of the Soviet days and Kurkov writing about a gangster operating in the 1950s is satirical or something. Right… So why only devote a handful of pages out of over 300? It could’ve been an effective commentary if Kurkov’s narrative were much more focused. Then again that’s not really what the novel’s about anyway, it’s about a guy very monotonously figuring out what he wants to do in life. 

While competently, if blandly, written and very occasionally mildly interesting, The Gardener from Ochakov is a slow, dull and far too light read. It’s not at all entertaining with little to say – nothing pertinent to Western readers anyway. Boring, boring, boring - if I could time travel, I’d stop myself requesting this on Netgalley!

The Gardener from Ochakov

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