The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov

The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey KurkovTitle: 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
Rating: 5/10

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.

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Review of The White Shadow by Andrea Eames

The White Shadow by Andrea EamesTitle: The White Shadow
Author: Andrea Eames
Published: 
2 February 2012
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Genre: 
YA, literary fiction, fantasy, African fiction
Source: 
review copy courtesy of Tammy at Women24
Rating: 
5/10

It began when my father told me that every person has two shadows: a black one and a white. The white shadow mweya, is the soul and the black shadow, nyama – a word which also means ‘meat’ – is the flesh.[…]

The mweya climbs out of the body after you die, in the form of a worm. […]

The worm will crawl out and into an animal, and the animal becomes an ancestral spirit. (1)

 

It began when the second child was born to our family and my father fell in love. (3)

 

Of these two beginnings, the first emphasises the role of folklore in the narrative, but the second is more significant. The speaker is Tinashe, a young Shona boy from a rural village in 1970s Zimbabwe. When his sister is born, everyone is disappointed that she is not a boy, but his father loves her instantly and names her “Hazvinei”, meaning “it does not matter”. Tinashe himself is secretly pleased because it means he will be the only son in the house.

From the moment of her birth, Hazvinei proves to be a strange but gifted child. She doesn’t cry when she’s born, and it’s years before she speaks, although it’s clear that she’s very intelligent. She has a sharp little teeth and a tendency to bite. As she grows older, she seems to have a connection to the Shona spirit world.

Tinashe begs her not to speak about it. His parents have frequently told him to look after his sister, and he worries that she will be labelled a witch if people find out about her abilities. The two of them grow up in a dusty little village and are occasionally visited by their wealthy cousin Abel who lives in the city. Zimbabwe is fraught with political conflict as rebels fight for independence from the colonists, but for a long time the children experience this only in snippets – officious white men questioning them about guerrillas hiding out in the bush; an injured man in Tinashe’s home in the middle of the night; tense whispering among the adults.

Tinashe takes little notice and happily believes the propaganda he hears on the radio. He just wants to go to school and (if his uncle will pay the fees) attend university so that he may wear a tie to work, own a car and live in a house in the city. In the meantime his cousin Abel longs to defy his father and become a freedom fighter, while Hazvinei believes she might possess the power to save their country.

This is not a political novel, however. For the most part, it’s a portrait of a child’s life in a rural Zimbabwean village. Tinashe grows up playing with the other children in the village, swimming in the river, collecting glass bottles in order to buy cold cokes at the local shop, doing chores for his parents, watching trails of ants go about their business (that last one happens surprisingly often). Tinashe is one of the few children who goes to school regularly, even thought the teacher is simply the only man in the village to have finished high school, and the school’s tiny collection of battered text books means that lessons are frequently repeated.

Since Tinashe knows little life outside his village, he is not particularly bothered by the poverty of his existence, but it becomes apparent whenever his uncle, Babamakuru, is mentioned. Babamakuru is the symbol of wealth to the villagers – he lives in the city, he wears a tie to work, he drives a car. His home includes a legendary indoor toilet, and a refrigerator full of ice cold Cokes. Abel enjoys chicken and potatoes for supper every night, and is initially disappointed when he is given neither at Tinashe’s home. At one point, Babamakuru gives Tinashe a toy truck as a present, and Tinashe marvels over it because it is the first new, clean thing he has ever owned. Village life certainly isn’t what you’d call hygienic, and I have to say that the novel didn’t need quite so many descriptions of urination and other bodily functions.

But what I will remember most about The White Shadow is not the poverty but the culturally ordained misogyny:

Women are dangerous, I was taught. Women have a natural tendency to become witches. Everyone knows this; and witches are the only thing that can break the unbreakable line of family (2)

It’s odd – women are frequently seen as symbolic of family, but in this case they pose a danger to it, regardless of the role they play in reproduction. Men, rather, are seen as the ones who create families:

‘It is good to be a man,’ Baba [father] said. ‘We make children, and children are the greatest wealth.’

Women risk breaking families or are seen to exist outside of the family:

‘A boy makes the family stronger,’ said Baba. ‘A girl is with the family only until she marries. She is a little stranger in the house.’ (5)

Hazvinei, however, is such a wilful, strong-minded child that she defies cultural traditions. As Tinashe notes, “There were certain things girls were meant to do and certain things boys were meant to do, and Hazvinei did neither” (64). Her father also allows her to go to school, even though educating girls is considered pointless.

However, Hazvinei is in no way liberated. Her schooling is ultimately meaningless, and she remains trapped within the dangerously misogynist boundaries of her culture. She questions it, but at her peril. Tinashe’s pathetic attempts at looking after her mostly involve trying to keep her silent or well-behaved.

For the most part, it’s sad and frustrating, but every now and then it’s outright disgusting. When Hazvinei gets older, she develops a curvy figure that titillates the men who hang around the local shebeen (an informal pub/liquor store). They find it disturbing that Hazvinei neither insults nor flirts with them, but ignores them completely. Tinashe is warned that “[m]en complain of their seed spilling in the night […] Wasted on their blankets when it should go to grow children. Your sister troubles their dreams. She unmans them” (212). He is advised that girls like Hazvinei should be married because it is “dangerous for such a woman to wander alone. […] Her female essence is not guarded, nor protected. Not guided in the proper way” (211). I hadn’t been keeping track of Hazvinei’s age, so shortly after this conversation I was shocked to hear that she was only 13 at this point.

Although Tinashe is dedicated to protecting his sister, it’s a long, long time before he even begins to question the gendered beliefs he has taken for granted. He simply believes that things are the way they are. It’s no surprise then that Tinashe is not the most exciting of narrators. Although he’s three years older than Hazvinei, he almost always seems like the silly, fumbling younger brother chasing after her. He does well at school, but Hazvinei and Abel both accuse him of being stupid because he tends to be rather dim in social and emotional terms. Even the reader, trapped within his limited POV, will pick up on things before he does. He’s also annoyingly cowardly and incurious. His sister is the most interesting character in the novel, but when it comes to her abilities or ideas, he always tells her, “You must not talk about these things […] You know what they will say. You know what they call girls like you” (222). Tinashe is not incorrect in assuming that Hazvinei may endanger herself, but it’s disappointing that he doesn’t want to listen to her or learn more about her, which means that the reader can’t either.

After a while I wondered where all this was going. The answer is: nowhere. It’s not that nothing happens – there are many notable events, causes and effects – but it has the random feel of real life where things happen without an overarching plot.

Whether you enjoy this sort of thing is a matter of personal preference. I generally didn’t mind meandering along with the characters’ lives, it gets frustrating because it feels like there should be more. You keep expecting a plot to develop because Eames sows its seeds from beginning to end – the country’s political turmoil, Hazvinei’s mysterious wisdom and power, Abel’s longing to join the guerrillas, Tinashe’s dream of getting a university education and a job where he has to wear a tie.  Each of the three main characters has specific obstacles in their paths – Hazvinei faces the misogyny of her culture; Abel has to defy his father’s wishes; poverty and family tensions crush Tinashe’s hopes of an education. It really looks like it will all combine to form a story of political and social rebellion entwined with folklore and personal achievements. Instead, the building blocks crumble before anything is properly formed.

As a result the book turns out to be fairly depressing. It begins in hardship and never really rises out of that. The most hopeful thing about it is the ambiguous ending, in which optimistic readers could find a glimmer of salvation for the characters. On the downside, it leaves you feeling that the story you were waiting for is floating wordlessly beyond the pages of the book and you will never get to read it. Unless perhaps Eames writes a sequel.

Alternatively, you could read it as grim realism. The fantasy aspects of the novel are never fully confirmed, and can be rationalised as the product of belief, imagination, and Hazvinei’s unique wisdom. The meandering plot, with its lack of successes and resolutions, can be seen simply as the sad reality of a hard life.

Neither perspective is favourable. The White Shadow isn’t a particularly bad novel – it’s well-written and memorable – but I feel that it’s unnecessarily dreary and wastes its potential for a strong plot. I’d recommend it to those with an interest in African fiction, but not the merits of its story or ideas alone.

 

Buy The White Shadow at The Book Depository

Up for Review: The White Shadow

Today’s book looks like a bit of a rare (or at least obscure) breed – YA set in Africa. This particular novel is a coming-of-age story set in 1960’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), although the political themes might make it more of an adult read.

The White Shadow by Andrea Eames (Harvill Secker)

Blurb:

‘Look after your sister, Tinashe.’

Tinashe is a young Shona boy living in a small village in rural Rhodesia. The guerilla war of the late 1960s haunts the bushlands, but it only infrequently affects his quiet life; school, swimming in the river, playing with the other kids on the kopje.

When his younger sister, Hazvinei, is born, Tinashe knows at once that there is something special about her. Their life in the village, once disturbed only by the occasional visits of his successful uncle and city cousin, Abel, now becomes entangled with the dual forces of the Shona spirit world and the political turmoil of the nation.

As Tinashe, Hazvinei and Abel grow older, their destinies entangle in ways they never expected. Tinashe is prepared to follow his sister anywhere – but how far can he go to keep her safe when the forces threatening her are so much darker and more sinister than he suspected?

Andrea Eames weaves together folklore and suspense in this compelling tale of a boy struggling to do the right thing in an unpredictable world.

 

The White Shadow was published on 2 February 2012 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Vintage Books. I received a review copy from Tammy February at Women24.

Links:
Read an excerpt
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The White Shadow 
at Vintage Books
The White Shadow at Random House Struik (South African distributor)
Buy a copy at The Book Depository

Andrea Eames:
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