The Milkman in the Night

The-Milkman-in-the-Night Marina Lewycka reviews Andrey Kurkov’s The Milkman in the Night, in the FT:

Andrey Kurkov’s new book is a surreal tale of post-Soviet Ukraine, in the same vein as his cult novel Death and the Penguin but with less poignant irony and more straight farce.

The Milkman in the Night opens with a night-time murder, followed by the interception at an airport of a suitcase full of mysterious ampoules and some bizarre goings-on at a private clinic where impoverished single mothers are paid to express their surplus breast milk. From there the plot unwinds in a complex helter-skelter of more and more improbable events. Sometimes the inventiveness is exhilarating, at other times the sheer implausibility of the narrative can grate.

The characters who unleash these extraordinary plots are humble people eking out a precarious living in the unglamorous corners of Kiev and its impoverished hinterland. Irina, a single mother, travels into Kiev every day from the snowbound village of Lipovka to sell her breast milk. Dima, a sniffer-dog handler at Boryspil airport, tries to change his luck by stealing a dodgy suitcase. Semyon, a private bodyguard to a parliamentary deputy, is revealed to be a sleepwalker with a separate nocturnal life of which his daytime self is completely unaware; his wife Veronika makes friends with the eccentric widow of the pharmacist whose murder opens the book.

In the best absurdist tradition, the priest who comes to exorcise Dima’s house and car charges extra because there are no airbags, while the murdered pharmacist had developed an elixir called Anti-Wimp, which stimulates not only courage but also an exaggerated sense of social justice (politicians order it by the bucket-load). If this isn’t enough, the pharmacist’s widow has his body plasticised and seats him by the window in her apartment until it begins to smell; her friend does the same with her dead husband and the two women finally bury their spouses next to each other. And so it goes on.