Review: The Case of the General’s Thumb by Andrey Kurkov
The Case of the General’s Thumb by Andrey Kurkov
Published in 2012 (First published in Russia, 1999)
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Genre: Crime Thriller
Source: Bought at Exclusive Books warehouse sale
Original Language: Russian
Translated by: George Bird
The corpse of a distinguished general is found attached to an advertising balloon – and minus his thumb. Police Lieutenant Viktro Slutsky is sent to investigate. So, too, is KGB officer Nik Tsensky. Unaware of each other, each quickly finds himself mystified by developments caused by the other. Thus begins a comedy of very dangerous errors as the two criss-cross Europe, Russia, and Ukraine, until they eventually converge to find themselves the catalysts in a bizarre battle between the Russian and Ukrainian secret services.
As usual with the work of Andrey Kurkov, it’s a brilliant, absurdest story that is simultaneously hilarious, tragic, and suspenseful, with a fascinating cast of characters: a larger-than-life hitman, a deaf-and-dumb blonde, and a turtle. And as the two faithful investigators realize they’re pawns in a story of post-Soviet collapse, it becomes – also as usual in the work of this modern Russian master – an inspiring tale of resilience against the dark forces of the day.
I got this unexpected read on a trip to the Exclusive Books warehouse sale in Johannesburg for a mere R10. I must admit though, it has been about 2 months since I finished this one and I’m only now getting to writing this review. Bad I know. I’m trying to create better habits. Anyways, back to the book. I simply loved the cartoonish cover, which is what attracted me to the book in the first place.
The Case of the General’s Thumb is a tale about murder, international spies and corruption following the collapse of the Soviet Union told using two viewpoint characters: Viktor Slutsky and Nik Tsensky. Viktor Slutsky is a police lieutenant recently promoted to the homicide desk. His first investigation as a homicide detective is to investigate the murder of a distinguished general, who coincidentally also has a thumb missing (see where the title came from?). One thing I noticed during the course of the book was that Viktor is very green when it came to investigating a homicide and as a result relied a lot on a mysterious man only known as Georgiy. I thought this was weird, why would a detective rely so heavily on a stranger? Luckily, Viktor did come into his own. On the other hand we have Nik Tsensky, a KGB officer, enlisted by a Mr. Sakhno to also investigate the general’s murder. His investigation took him across Europe, Russia and the Ukraine. Nik’s behaviour was a lot more consistent with that of an international spy using any means necessary to get results. Both character’s eventually meet as their paths cross during the investigation. I must admit, of the two I really enjoyed reading Nik as he lead a more action packed life and well he wasn’t just a puppet either.
At first I really liked the plot. Some influential general gets killed and his thumb is missing, a very green homicide detective is assigned the case. A KGB officer is tasked with investigating the murder by trailing those thought to be responsible. But then everything starts to get messy and I really wondered at one point why this general was murdered in the first place and why was his thumb so important? And as I’m writing this I’m actually wondering whether I ever got answers to these questions. It is obviously a sign that the plot did not leave a lasting impression as I can’t even remember such critical details 2 months after reading it.
I have read a few translated books in my lifetime and I always have this “I’m missing something” feeling. This could either be because I don’t understand the culture and lifestyle of where it is based or something actually gets lost in translation. I definitely felt that was the case here. Even though I actually enjoyed the plot, albeit a little messy and confusing at times, I did feel like I’m missing something critical. A lot of the reviews also said The Case of the General’s Thumb was “blackly comic”, I struggled to see it. Most probably because I know nothing of the life, culture, history or politics of Russia, the Ukraine or the Soviet Union. Besides that, I also felt that the sentence structure was lacking at times and I found myself having to reread sentences to understand what is meant.
Despite the messy plot and the translation I did enjoy reading The Case of the General’s Thumb. I do think that Andrey Kurkov is probably the Deon Meyer of Ukraine, especially if you look at his bio. Would I read another of his books? In all honesty, probably not.
Have you read any translated books? What did you think?