In 2015 I translated a most unusual, haunting novel by the Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. Its title — The Bickford Fuse — refers to the Englishman William Bickford (1774-1834) and his great invention, the safety fuse. Bickford himself appears as a character in the novel, although the action is set in the late Soviet period. What we find here, in other words, isn’t exactly realism, but that doesn’t mean Kurkov loses sight of reality. In fact, what he offers us is a new vantage point on the world we think we know.
My journey though Kurkov’s sui generis Bickford Fuse forever changed my sense of Soviet life, which I experienced as a child in the 1980s. In this, the first of his major novels, he set himself a difficult task: “to trace,” as he puts it in his preface, “the evolution of Soviet man’s utopian mentality.” To do this, he devised not only a set of ominous symbols — including an airship floating without direction above the clouds, whose helpless “Occupant” is a stand-in for Nikita Khrushchev; a watch factory that makes hourglasses; a fruitless orchard planted by the victims of mass executions; and the titular safety fuse, extending from the Sea of Japan to what was then Leningrad — but also a variety of styles, each of which was a painful pleasure to reproduce.
First, there is the deadpan magic realism of which Kurkov is the undisputed master, and which we encounter in the very first lines: “The city slept lightly. It dreamt of a fish – a huge, wide flounder blocking out the sky. And if the flounder blocked out the sky, that meant it wished good things for the city. The city had long yearned for good things.” There is also the officialese of disorienting dispatches from the center of power, piped in through wireless radios to the farthest and least populated reaches of the empire:
Stay tuned for a report from the Soviet Information Bureau. Listen for the following time signals: in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev – summer of 1945; in Perm, Norilsk, Magnitogorsk – summer of 1943; in Ust-Ilimsk, Vorkuta, Anadyr – autumn of 1939. Message to Perm, Norilsk, Magnitogorsk and the regions of East Siberia: after heavy prolonged fighting, Soviet troops have withdrawn from Crimea; the enemy has suffered heavy losses in manpower and equipment . . .
And then there are the bits of gnomic wisdom or sheer folly — the two are hard to distinguish — that escape the mouths of Kurkov’s unforgettable characters, like the hermit who lives by an abandoned runway and devotes his life to erecting a peculiar wooden monument: “People are enemies while they live, but death evens the score. It reconciles everyone. What kind of enemy is he, if he’s dead? That’s why the monument’s ‘To All Those Who Have Perished’ — that is, to everyone reconciled by death.”
Long after I finished the translation, this chorus of voices still rang in my mind, like the strains of “The March of the Enthusiasts,” played by the performers incarcerated in the novel’s musical labor camp, the Mulag. I am still haunted by Kurkov’s warped, uniquely insightful depiction of the late Soviet world, in which — to quote the title of anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s book-length study of the period — everything was forever, until it was no more. Completed in 1989, Kurkov’s melancholy satirical masterpiece predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, sadly, the ghostly afterlife of Soviet man in the present day: “after heavy prolonged fighting, Soviet troops have withdrawn from Crimea; the enemy has suffered heavy losses in manpower and equipment…”
The Bickford Fuse was greeted warmly when it was first published in 2016, with reviews by Phoebe Taplin in The Guardian, Ian Sansom in The Spectator, and Sam Leith in the Financial Times, as well as by David Hebblethwaite and other book bloggers I greatly admire. And its paperback reprint has just received another excellent review from Erin Britton in NB. I hope Kurkov’s most recent novel, which I’ve just signed on to translate, will also find a receptive audience in English. In some ways, it picks up the thread (fuse, I should say) of the author’s debut, leading us into the current conflict in Crimea — through a Kurkovian side door.
Andrey and myself, photographed by Jennifer Croft