••• The International Writers Magazine: Review
The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov
Maclehose Press, London, 2016, 350 pp.
Charlie Dickinson book review
The latest work by Andrey Kurkov to be translated into English, The Bickford Fuse, just might be his magnum opus. Of the now six Kurkov novels I've read, this novel is Kurkovian enchantment at its most satisfying. As the author says in a reader preface, "I spent four years writing it, and, for me, it remains the dearest and most important of all my works.”
Perhaps only Kurkov could find a narrative premise in the Bickford fuse. Invented by Englishman William Bickford in 1831 and also known as a safety fuse, it is a length of waterproofed rope with a gunpowder core. Used in mining, it is lit and sets off dynamite at a considerable distance without igniting prematurely while being unspooled.
Set in the Soviet Union after WWII and leading up to 1989, the novel follows various Soviet travellers. Kharitonov, a naval seaman, abandons his barge run aground on the coast of the Sea of Japan and walks across the Soviet Union to Leningrad [St. Petersburg] while unspooling a Bickford fuse. Kharitonov thinks at journey's end, he might set off the dynamite on the barge and blow the world to kingdom come.
Yes, that outrageous premise is fantastic, but as Kurkov once said, if you want straight literature, go to countries with stable politics. Ukrainian Kurkov sees things aslant.
Kurkov shrewdly deploys metaphor. A mysterious black dirigible appears overhead. The gondola appears unoccupied, its engine dead. Held aloft by helium, it's carried where the wind blows.
Eventually, we learn the black dirigible has an "Occupant,” yearning to rejoin groundlings below. But kept aloft, he and the buoyant dirigible can only go where the wind blows. Wearing an embroidered Ukrainian shirt and baggy trousers, his features and words match a Nikita Khrushchev who has lost the common touch.
Another traveller, the "Driver" steers a truck hauling a searchlight through total darkness. He is out of gas. Gravity compels him on a downward slope. He never sees sunlight, but finally witnesses stars and two moons.
Andrey leaves an Old Believer monastery--down to his father and two brothers--and joins a peg-legged soldier, Koretsky, who seeks communities to hang the rest of his allotment of Soviet propaganda radios ["frying pans"].
Even William Bickford shows up in several scenes. In one, Bickford converses on a park bench [London, perhaps] with an old guilt-ridden German philosopher--undoubtedly Karl Marx—who has seen his theories misused as communism.
Read The Bickford Fuse for an absorbing amalgam of the real and the fantastic in Soviet times.
The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov, Maclehose Press, London, 2016, 350 pp. ISBN: 978-0-85705-558-3
© Charlie Dickinson May 2017
read his blog at www.cosmicplodding.net
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