Satire and surrealism
The Presidentís Last Love
by Andrey Kurkov
Harvill Secker. Pages 400. £12.99
Barry Forshaw

Is jet-black humour the best way to confront oppressive regimes? Certainly, Russia and its former satellite countries have groaned under a series of unprepossessing political grandes from ages. And Russian-language writers from Gogol onwards have wielded the scalpel of humour to flay the pretensions of power.

Few would argue that Andrey Kurkov is the most trenchant contemporary writer to emerge from Ukraine, with his quirky and eccentric books appearing in over 30 languages. Kurkov sports a double whammy: the fiercest of political intelligences married to a surrealistic mindset. A peculiar foregrounding of animals is his most famous device, and non-humans appear in novels such as Death and the Penguin along with a scabrously funny take on official corruption.

But if you look askance at such a whimsical use of animals, The Presidentís Last Love is the perfect Kurkov novel for you. This is an ambitious, multi-layered political black comedy. The eponymous Presidentówho regales us with the story of his rise to ultimate poweróis Bunin, who (almost by accident) becomes President of Ukraine after a misspent youth in the Soviet era. The book is set sometime in the near future, although the chronology leaps confusingly between past and present.

Kurkovís anti-hero takes the reader on a bizarre ride through the corridors of power, Ukrainian style, as he survives a heart transplant and a Yushchenko-like poisoning. The tone is a mix of the probable (Russian President Putin leaves office in 2008, then takes up the reins again four years later) and improbable (a bizarre state welcome for delegates in a Moscow pool, in which Bunin dons "ceremonial trunks," then takes to the water along with the "youthful Conservative Prime Minister of Great Britain"). In this lunatic universe, Kurkov makes everything hilariously plausible.

Unsurprisingly, The Moscow Times has performed a hatchet job on the novel, but agenda-free readers will find Kurkovís novel both sardonic and bracing. And if the President/narrator never really comes across as a living human being, that is not really Kurkovís intention. As he conducts us through the nightmarishly funny blind alleys of Ukrainian politics, Bunin (however cartoonish a figure) is the perfect guide.

ó By arrangement with The Independent