Ukrainian novelist on post-Soviet man

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov published his first book two weeks before the Soviet Union collapsed. That was back in 1991. Since then he's written more than a dozen novels and children's stories. But Kurkov says all of his stories are really about the evolution of the post Soviet man. Brigid McCarthy has this profile.

BRIGID MCCARTHY: Andrey Kurkov is Ukraine's top selling novelist. But he's also controversial. Ukrainian nationalists have blasted him, because even though Ukrainian is the country's official state language, Kurkov prefers to write in Russian.

ANDREY KURKOV: Well, because it is my mother tongue, and I feel much freer when I experiment with Russian than when I experiment with Ukrainian.

MCCARTHY: Besides, Kurkov says, like it or not, half the country still speaks Russian.

KURKOV: Russia has no monopoly on the Russian language, and I write about Ukraine.

MCCARTHY: The Ukraine Kurkov writes about is grim and hilarious, lawless and absurd. In his book, A Matter of Death and Life, the main character Tolya watches passively as his wife walks out on him. Then he decides to hire a hit man for himself. Tolya says at one point, �I was made for the role of victim.� Another novel, Death and the Penguin, features a depressed obituary writer named Viktor who lives with his equally depressed pet penguin. Viktor gradually realizes the newspaper he writes for is run by mobsters, who plan to print his obituary next. Kurkov says these two characters, Viktor and Tolya, represent a certain personality type.

KURKOV: They're typical post Soviet intellectuals actually who are ready to talk free in the kitchen and very cautious outside. They just check where the wind blows and be on the safe side always.

MCCARTHY: Andrey Kurkov, like most of his characters, is a member of the last Soviet generation. He was born in 1961 in St. Petersburg and grew up in Kiev. His mother was a doctor in a police hospital, and his father was a test pilot.

KURKOV: My father, he was a proper Communist, sort of an idealist.

MCCARTHY: And a Soviet patriot who genuinely believed in the principles of socialism. And young Andrey did too. In fact, one of the very first things he wrote was an ode to Lenin. He was just 6 years old.

KURKOV: There was an official slogan that Lenin is always alive.

MCCARTHY: And everywhere. Lenin's life and teachings were a big part of Soviet education, starting in kindergarten. Kurkov says there were even children's stories about Lenin.

KURKOV: And I have a small collection at home. But generally, he was a little nice guy who loved children, work and animals. And it was very important for me because I loved animals.

MCCARTHY: Kurkov grew up during the relative peace of the Brezhnev era, which spanned the mid l960s to the early l980s.

KURKOV: It was very stable system and [INDISCERNIBLE] was very well organized, but there was this separate kitchen culture. There was a tradition to criticize the Soviet Union and Brezhnev, sitting at the kitchen, drinking either tea or vodka, cognac and probably every kitchen was a small club, family club or friends club.

MCCARTHY: And in Kurkov's kitchen, a place to tell jokes. Kurkov and his older brother collected them, and competed in underground joke competitions in the Crimea. One year Kurkov even walked away with first prize. The hypocrisy and venality of Communist party officials inspired a thriving joke culture in the Soviet Union. As did the myth of Lenin.

KURKOV: A newly married couple comes to the furniture shop and asks for a sofa for three persons. And the shop assistant asks why for three? And they say, well Lenin is always with us.

MCCARTHY: Andrey Kurkov writes for people who remember the Soviet Union, and recognize all that's been gained, and lost, in the turbulent, and often disorienting transition from communism to capitalism. An undercurrent of loneliness runs through many of his novels. Kurkov says that's because one of the biggest social changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been in the nature of friendship.

KURKOV: Soviet country was country full of friendships. It was something life depended on. Because if you need something, if you need money, if you need help, if you need salt, you go to your neighbors, you don't go to your shop.

MCCARTHY: Kurkov says this truly communal aspect of Soviet culture has disappeared from many parts of Ukraine. For better or worse. For The World, I'm Brigid McCarthy.