A Matter of Death and Life by Andrey Kurkov (Translated by George Bird) - review by John Murray

John Murray

Suicide for the Faint of Heart

A Matter of Death and Life


Harvill 111pp £10

'The banality of permanence was what I wanted, and for unremitting happiness.'

Thus speaks the hero of this excellent, blackly comic novella, suicidal young Tolya. An ethnic Russian living in Kiev, Tolya is stuck with a cold, adulterous wife, and, instead of having her lover bumped off commissions his own murder by a hitman. Tolya's unhappiness is rooted in his considerable loneliness, a leading motif here just as it was in Kurkov's cult success, Death of a Penguin (1996), and the follow-up, Penguin Lost (2002). In the former, Viktor, unwitting obituarist to the Kiev mafia, is so lonely his only real friend is his pet penguin, Misha. In Penguin Lost he is so distraught at losing his innocent little pal that he traverses the globe (the Antarctic, Kiev and Chechnya) to get him back. As for the 'banality of permanence', its ugly antithesis is corrupt Nineties Kiev, where a toy water pistol costs 250,000 Ukrainian kupons, and a contract killer can be hired for $500.

That is what Tolya pays the hitman Kostya for an assisted suicide, having misinformed him that he is the lover, not the husband, of the triangle. In a series of switchback ironies, Kostya arrives late at the café rendezvous, and thus fails in his mission. Tolya promptly takes a tender-hearted

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