The wit in wartime
Or, Andrey Kurkov's campaign for Ukraine
When the enemy invades your country, you fight back. If you’re better at wielding dark wit than a Javelin anti-tank missile, you do that.
And so Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine’s most famous living author, has turned his book tour into an awareness campaign for his besieged country.
Kurkov’s specialty is the absurd. In his best-known book, Death and the Penguin, a writer who adopts a flightless Antarctic bird named Misha from the cash-strapped Kyiv zoo is tasked with writing obelisks, or pre-obituaries for the local paper.
“You, like so many in the good old Soviet days, are writing for the drawer,” his editor tells him. But then dignitaries start dying and his work ends up being printed with frightening regularity. Why? “The full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required.”
First published in Russian in 1996 and translated into English in 1999, it’s the kind of book in which characters are constantly preparing tea, coffee, vodka, or cherry brandy in the futile hope of finding clarity.
Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees, follows a beekeeper who continues to tend to his hives in the Donbas after Russia’s 2014 invasion. Its unexpected topicality has given Kurkov a platform, and he’s used it well.
In February, The New York Times headlined a story about him “A Humorous Ukrainian Writer, With Nothing to Laugh About.” In March, The Guardian published his piece with the headline “I have run out of words for the horror of Putin’s crimes in Ukraine,” though of course he hadn’t.
This month, as the war drags on, Kurkov’s dark wit has returned, not least to his Twitter account, which manages to be simultaneously devastating and inspiring.
“I was doing a public event last night and I found myself improvising all these sad jokes,” he told a journalist last week. “Once the adrenaline gets going, you get your sense of humour back.” During that interview, the cafe owner comes over to say “The Ukrainian people are an inspiration to us all!” to which Kurkov responds “I know! My son can make a molotov cocktail! I’m so proud!”
In the midst of all this, the clever little book Everyday Play: A Campaign Against Boredom was published by London’s wonderfully eccentric Redstone Press.
Kurkov wrote the foreword for this book last summer, and it now reads like an artifact from a happier timeline in which absurdities take priority over atrocities and the satirist doesn’t have to constantly explain his country.
Instead, he can write about how the Russian poet Daniil Kharms inspired his work:
“First, I let in his poems and short stories, filled with black humour; and then he squeezed himself through and hid in the depths of my being. Yes, I do know that he died of starvation in the besieged city of Leningrad in February 1942. But I also know that crazy people don’t die! They just reincarnate as other madmen, while partially hiding inside normal people.”
Kurkov had previously contributed the foreword to Redstone’s Definitive Guide to the Absurd in 2006, and as he wrote there, “Absurdity should not be feared. For one thing it is everywhere. Secondly it will always win.”
Andrey Kurkov has noted that all of Ukrainian literature became war literature after the invasion of Crimea, and certainly all of the country’s art will follow suit for the foreseeable future.
It’s absurd but worthwhile to imagine a world where this didn’t have to happen. As Kurkov describes a tall Ukrainian soldier in Death and the Penguin:
“If he had not been a militiaman, he would have been an asset to any volleyball team.”
Quick quips; lightning
“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
— Just like defeat, this line is an orphan.
“I always fear that creation will expire before teatime.”
— Sydney Smith, the perfect wit for a holy weekend
“What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs, and debt”
— Francis Moore
Guns vs pens
That was GWQ No. 145. Andrey Kurkov is the president of PEN Ukraine, which can be supported here. Huge thank you to Julian Rothenstein, proprietor of Redstone Press, for answering my questions about how Kurkov came into his orbit. I’m going to tell my close personal friend Chip Zdarsky to include a reference to Death and The Penguin in the Batman comic he’s writing. This newsletter grew out of my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting and tapping the ❤️ below is always encouraged.