In his introduction to The Bickford Fuse (which is translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk), Andrey Kurkov remarks that there “are nations with great, complex histories, nations that have seen much blood and many tragedies, nations that are so hopelessly bound by their histories that they cannot move forward into the future, or even into a normal ‘present’.” Of course, the country that Kurkov has in mind here is Russia. At the time of writing the introduction to the English-language edition of the book he was speaking of the Russia of Vladimir Putin, but at the time of writing the book he was thinking of the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and, more remotely, the Russia of Nikita Khrushchev.

What do these different eras of “modern” Russian life have in common? Well, according to Kurkov, they are all characterised by the apparent political desire to tear the country away from its Soviet past being blocked by “Soviet man.” Kurkov holds that Khrushchev’s and Yeltsin’s attempts to modernise the nation were thwarted by this “Soviet man,” who now appears to support the government of Vladimir Putin, but only to the extent that Putin’s vision of the future of Russia ties with the desire to return the country to its mythical past, “which the Russian people have learned to regard with a kind of religious pride.” With The Bickford Fuse, Kurkov sets out to explore the psychology of “Soviet man,” who is neither good nor bad, but simply Soviet.

Kurkov’s principal example of “Soviet man” is junior seaman Vasily Kharitonov, who begins the novel shipwrecked on Russia’s eastern coast. The Great Patriotic War is drawing to a close and Kharitonov is stuck sharing a beleaguered naval barge with his commanding officer and former friend, Fedya Gritsak, as well as tons of dynamite and miles of safety fuses. It is not a living situation that Kharitonov finds easy, nor does he truly understand Gritsak’s determination to continue following military regulations and protecting the barge’s deadly cargo.

“Kharitonov had spent all five years pondering one and the same thing: He kept trying to explain to himself how and why Fedya Gritsak, Fedya, with whom he’d grown up, with whom he’d gone fishing in their native lake, Lacha, had changed so much — as Kharitonov’s grandfather had once changed, when he’d learned that God was the opium of the masses and that the winter church was a good set of bricks for building fishermen’s stoves.”

Despite initially appearing to have a rather rebellious and questioning nature, at least when compared to his staunchly Soviet companion, when Kharitonov suddenly finds himself alone on the barge and without orders to follow, he doesn’t take the logical step of running away as far and as fast as he possibly can. Instead, he primes the dynamite in the barge’s hold, attaches a fuse to it, ties the other end of the miles-long fuse round his waist, and sets out on a trek across Russia. His vague intention is to make his way toward Leningrad and the sense of order offered by rules and regulations. If he meets any comrades on his journey, he will tell them of the barge’s cargo and allow them to follow the trailing fuse back to it; if he meets enemies he will blow up the dynamite.

Kharitonov’s odyssey is not the only epic journey described in the book, since The Bickford Fuse also chronicles the exploits of several other examples of “Soviet man” who are determinedly plodding onward with their tasks despite having very little real sense of purpose. There is the nameless driver and his passenger, Gorych, who are travelling through the night in a truck carrying a searchlight in the hope of spotting, well, something as war rages all around them. The truck is as much a character as the two men, which nicely echoes their automaton-like pursuance of their goal.

“At half past two in the morning the city was roused from its light slumber. The engine of a big black truck started in one of the tumbledown courtyards. Then the truck turned on its lights and rode out into the street. The city blinked, lighting one of its windows, and watched it go. It knew that truck. That truck wished it no harm.”

Kurkov’s novels always contain a healthy dose of the absurd, and in The Bickford Fuse the examples of Kharitonov and the truck dwellers highlight his ability to break from reality in such a way that is oddly plausible and yet clearly demonstrates the absurdity of the situations his characters find themselves in. Just as Kharitonov is able to walk thousands of miles across Russia unspooling a never-ending fuse as he goes, so the truck (and its occupants) spends the entire book rolling down a geographically impossible slope after having run out of petrol.

Equally odd are the exploits of the other Soviet travellers who are trudging across the pages of The Bickford Fuse. Also hoofing it across Russia are Andrey, a young man who has spent his life living with his father and brothers in an abandoned monastery but who is forced to leave after the family finally successfully builds a wooden “humming” bell, and Kortetsky, a one-legged propagandist who is touring the country and constructing miniature radios to spread the Soviet word to the masses. Finally, uncontrollably drifting across the sky above all the others, is the sole occupant of a black airship, a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Khrushchev.

All these journeys serve to highlight the vastness of Russia as well as the strength and longevity of the Soviet ideology. The characters have to contend with collective trauma (most poignantly exemplified by an orchard, in which every tree represents a dead political prisoner) and the almost total erosion of individualism and the ability to question. “Soviet man” doesn’t seem able to break away from the patterns of the past, but can he really be blamed for that? There’s a lot of darkness to the story, both literal (as the truck travels for months, perhaps even years, without encountering daylight) and metaphorical, for example, when a boatload of enemy soldiers attempt to surrender to Gritsak and Kharitonov, Gritsak throws a grenade at them and the pair soon have body parts raining down on them.

Yet, as will likely prove unsurprising to those who have read Kurkov’s other books, most notably Death and the Penguin and A Matter of Death and Life, there is a whole lot of (dark) humour in The Bickford Fuse, too. From the straitjacket factory to the runaway train to the “mulag” (that is, a gulag for musicians), there is much to find funny in the dream-like, almost otherworldly oddness that the various characters encounter. The Bickford Fuse is satire at its finest: sharp, irreverent, timeless, and willing to talk about things that are more frequently left unsaid.

Erin Britton 5/5

The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov
MacLehose Press 9781848666061 pbk Jun 2017