A retired general is found dead in central Kiev—hanged, apparently, from a giant Coca-Cola advertising balloon. Stranger still, orders from the Ministry request that Lieutenant Viktor Slutsky, a petty-crime detective who has never worked a murder case, take charge of the investigation. He might not know why they’ve picked him, but he knows enough not to ask too many questions: “It’s terrific. Perks, promotion, pay increase . . .” Meanwhile, Nik Tsensky, a former Russian military interpreter, is recruited from his post in Tajikistan to help with the formation of a new Ukrainian security agency that operates like the American FBI. While the agency has some strong political backing, opposition from existing security services will be insurmountable without a significant infusion of cash, which Nik must help to obtain by tracking down a rumored $4 billion KGB slush fund.
Like many of Kurkov's thrillers, The Case of the General's Thumb (originally published in Russian as Igra v otrezanny palets) takes place during the late nineties, a bleak period for post-Soviet Ukraine. The planned economy had begrudgingly given way to a capitalist free-for-all where the lines separating government, business, and crime are fuzzy at best. Government agencies war with one another for greater control of whatever capital and infrastructure remained at the breakup of the USSR. This is not a time to stand out or offend: people who get in the way of those in power have a strange habit of falling from balconies or jumping into traffic.
Viktor and Nik, thankfully, lack such dangerous willfulness. Shortly after receiving his assignment, Viktor begins to get calls from Georgy, a well-connected agent (we're never quite sure where he's from) who goes on to coordinate Victor's every move during the investigation with critical and timely advice. Nik's handler, Ivan Lvovich, does likewise while sending Nik to deal with an asset in Germany, supplying just enough information and cash for him to complete the next part of the sequence.
These kinds of pawn-like characters are common in conspiracy stories. But Viktor and Nik are pawn-like in a more complete way—they accept being controlled and guided, and lack all desire or ability to act on their own. Sometimes it seems that the only positive decisions they are interested in making—apart from forming an implicit trust in their handlers—is to work out if they’re having coffee or tea while awaiting the next set of instructions. Kurkov seems to be after a particular effect here; perhaps the exaggerated passivity of these characters is meant to capture a deep-set malaise. But whatever the case may be, following the exploits of such thoroughly flat characters can get a bit tedious.
George Bird’s translation reads like it stumbled out of a time machine. Translators of classic texts debate whether it is necessary, appropriate, or even possible to translate into a contemporary version of the target language. (Imagine re-translating Crime and Punishment today into the English of the 1860s.) Bird appears to have done the reverse—a modern work has been turned back in time, the effect being that you wonder every so often whether you’re reading early P.G. Wodehouse. An exasperated police chief—in earnest—yells “Hell’s bells!” There are a number of antiquated terms, such as “deaf-and-dumb language” and “Negroes,” along with lost abbreviations like “lab.” (laboratory) and “info.” (information) in place of a plain “lab” and “info.” None of these appear to follow an equivalent effect in the original.
If nothing else, these incongruities complement the absurd and withdrawn humor that Kurkov is known for. You’ve got to laugh when a gritty Ukrainian spy says something like “come forth” on a mobile phone, or when Nik’s hit-man associate gets a great deal on the purchase of a stretch limo, only to discover later that he’s bought himself a hearse. In Kurkov’s world, what we want and what we actually get do not always turn out to be the same thing. And since we cannot change this unfortunate fact, Kurkov leaves us with two options: either get frustrated and angry with a world of dashed expectations, or try our best to laugh it off, however uneasily.