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Andrey Kurkov: Садовник из Очакова (The Gardener from Ochakov)

Our hero is Igor. When he was young, he had an accident and banged his head. He seems to be all right but has occasional problems. As a result he does not work. He lives with his divorced mother, Elena, and they live off her pension and the money they got when they sold their property in Kyiv and moved to much cheaper Irpen. Elena encourages Igor to look for a job but he is in no hurry to find one.

Elena’s neighbour is always trying to help and introduces Elena to Stepan. He offers his services as a gardener and, as he is very cheap and is happy to live in the outhouse, Elena accepts. He seems to work hard. Igor notices he has a blurred tattoo on his shoulder and asks Stepan about it. Stepan says his father had it done when he was five but, as he has grown, the tattoo got blurred and he has no idea what it says. Igor offers to get his friend, Kolyan, who is a computer expert, to decipher it which he does. It reads Ochakov, 1957, Efim Chagin’s House. Ochakov is a small town in southern Ukraine.

Stepan wants to go to Ochakov but has no money. Igor offers to fund him if he can come. The pair have something of an adventure, not least when they find out that Efim Chagin, now deceased, was a local gangster. His house is now the office of a pension fund but Stepan is sure that it has secrets in it and they break in. They find suitcases containing various items, including a Soviet police officer uniform and lots or worthless Soviet cash.

Back in Irpen, in Igor has been invited to a retro fancy dress party by Kolyan and naturally wears the Soviet police officer uniform but when he goes out at night in it, things look different. He soon realises he is neither where or when he thought he was but back in 1957 Ochakov. As a Soviet police officer he has power and as a large sum of roubles was also in the suitcases – useless in the current era but very useful back then – he can manage well. His aim, of course, is to find out about Efim Chagin and he blackmails a a petty crook to help him. Of course, he also falls in love. Back home, his friend Kolyan is misbehaving as well, hacking into people’s email accounts for disgruntled lovers/business associates. Perhaps not surprisingly, when the victims find who is responsible, they seek bloody revenge.

Igor is continuing his trips to 1957 and finding out more about Efim Chagin, while pursuing his love life with a married woman, while Stepan, who has sold some of the stuff he found plans to get back in touch with his estranged daughter. Kolyan, meanwhile, is fleeing his pursuers.

Igor has learned from a cookbook written by Stepan’s father that there atre two types of people in the world :

People can be divided into two categories, according to the way they naturally relate to the world around them: gardeners and foresters. Gardeners essentially see the world as a garden, in which it is their responsibility to behave appropriately, to fix whatever is broken, to decorate whatever is built and to keep order. Foresters, on the other hand, prefer an uncultivated environment. They are more inclined to break things and live in disorder than to build, renovate or repair.

Men are more likely to be foresters while women more likely to be gardeners. Igor is not sure which he is and endeavours to find out.

This was a very enjoyable book: time travel, romance, mystery, murder, comparison between Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine, people questioning where their lives are going and a host of colourful characters.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Folio
First published in English in 2014 by Vintage Books
Translated by Amanda Love Darragh