Title: The Gardener from Ochakov
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Translation: from Russian by Amanda Love Darragh
Published: First published 2011, this edition published 1 August 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Genre: fantasy, historical
Igor is a bit of a loser, a 31-year old man who doesn’t have a job or any plans to get one, and survives on the interest from a small investment. He lives with his mother in Irpen, Ukraine, about an hour away from the capital Kiev. One day his mother hires a mysterious old man named Stepan to work as their gardener and handyman. Stepan has a strange, indecipherable tattoo on his arm but he has no idea what it is. Bored, Igor photographs the tattoo and takes the picture to his friend Kolyan, a computer expert. Kolyan cleans up the image to reveal an address in Ochakov, a seaside town.
Stepan travels to Ochakov to learn more about his past, and because Igor has nothing better to do, he tags along, looking for adventure and treasure. The possibility of treasure sounds absurd, but this is exactly what they find – the address on Stepan’s arm leads them to what was once the home of Fima Chagin, a infamous criminal who lived in Ochakov in the 50s. Stepan’s father too, was a criminal, who left a stash of loot at the house.
As a reward for his help, Stepan gives Igor a few of the items – a gold pocket watch (broken), rolls of hundred-rouble notes (worthless), a gun (that doesn’t fire) and a Soviet policeman’s uniform. Igor feels short-changed, but one night he wears the uniform to a costume party and finds himself in 1957 Ochakov, where the pocket watch starts ticking again, the roubles amount to a very large sum of money, and the uniform gives him an authority that strikes fear in the hearts of citizens.
Stepping awkwardly into the role of a Soviet policeman, Igor ropes a young wine smuggler into helping him spy on the criminal Fima Chagin, who is living in Ochakov at this time. This quickly leads Igor to Red Valya – a stunningly beautiful fish seller who may have had an affair with Fima and who immediately captures Igor’s attention and admiration. He begins to flit between present-day Ukraine and 1957 Ochakov, entwining his life with his dabblings in the past.
Now, genre fans, a warning. This is not the kind of book with any interest in the time travel itself, the thrills and perils it offers, or complications like time paradoxes and anachronisms. I wouldn’t say that this is the kind of book where literary fiction and sff intersect because the sff aspect is almost negligible. Time travel is just a plot device. We have no idea why or how it happens. Igor doesn’t think about it much, and isn’t worried about getting stuck in 1957. All we know is that he has a few stiff drinks, puts on the uniform, walks down a certain road, and ends up running into Vanya, the wine smuggler, at the wine factory in Ochakov in 1957. To return home he takes the uniform off and goes to sleep on the couch in Vanya’s house. He wakes up in his own bed in Irpen. He believes that taking the uniform off will send him back home, but he never tests this theory. Nor does he check to see if he needs to drink copiously to time-travel, or if he could walk a different route to end up somewhere else. The time-travel phenomena really only serves to take him to 1957 Ochakov and back, juxtaposing the places and periods, and allowing Igor to carry out his little adventure.
His very random little adventure. It’s unclear if Igor is driven by anything other than idle curiosity, and he doesn’t seem to have any goals. He wants to spy on Fima Chagin partly because he’s pretending to be a policeman, and partly because he learned about this legendary criminal when he travelled to Ochakov with Stepan. What he’d actually do with info on Fima’s whereabouts is anyone’s guess. It’s no wonder that Igor is quickly and easily distracted by Valya; he’s just hanging around looking for something to do. There’s a semblance of a plot here, but it meanders aimlessly, much like Igor himself.
Normally in books like this, something else will drive the narrative, such as the character or setting. But in this case nothing did, at least not for me. The characters are all pretty boring. Igor, who has no ambitions other than to buy a motorbike one day, is totally colourless. Vanya is little more than a plot device deployed to guide Igor in 1957, except for a vague suspicion that he might be up to something sinister. The women in the story particularly dull. Valya is there to be a beautiful but reluctant love interest. Igor’s mother Elena Adreevna does little more than cook, clean and scold her son. We meet Stepan’s daughter, who is often just a silent presence.
There are a few potentially interesting characters who seem to have better stories – Stepan; Igor’s best friend Nikolai Kolyon; and the criminal Fima Chagin. Stepan is full of secrets, almost none of which are revealed. Kolyon is vivacious and enterprising – the opposite of Igor – and as a hacker he starts selling information illegally. However, his story is mostly sidelined. Fima Chagin, a famously handsome, charismatic and successful criminal also gets sidelined when Igor loses interest in him in favour of trying to get Valya to spend time with him.
Mostly, the novel seems to be about creating snapshots of day-to-day life in modern Ukraine (Irpen and Kiev) and 1957 Ochakov, which aren’t really that different. This involves stuff like public transport (Igor taking a minibus from Irpen to Kiev, buying instant coffee at the train station), a bit of crime here and there (Vanya’s wine smuggling, Kolyan’s hacking), food (buckwheat with a knob of butter, fresh flounder and gobi from Valya’s stall, salami and salted cucumbers), and A LOT of hard liquor (vodka obviously, but also vodka shots in beer, homemade vodka, brandy, and homemade wormwood liqueur, which I just found out is absinthe).
Then, towards the end, there are a few serious developments as , and Igor starts to have some insights about life – the aimless way he’s living, human nature in general, etc. None of it was exactly profound. Or memorable. Or book-redeeming.
Reading The Gardener from Ochakov is like moving languidly from point A to point B. If books were journeys then this would be a trip to the supermarket. A Ukranian supermarket, maybe. It’s not unpleasant, you pick up a few new and unusual things, but it’s mostly mundane. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it – I’m totally indifferent.
I’d say it’s more for fans of literary historical fiction than sff readers or any reader who enjoys plot. Kurkov uses an extraordinary and unexplained phenomena to portray ordinary lives rather than tell a gripping tale. And because there’s not much of a story driving the narrative, your potential enjoyment depends on whether you find the everyday details of Ukrainian life interesting, or if you’d like to follow the wanderings of a benign drifter like Igor. Its not necessarily a bad thing, and I can see how some would find a quiet, quirky appeal in The Gardener from Ochakov, but it’s not for me.