Translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk
This is a strange, dreamlike book. Four men are on journeys across the Soviet Union that make no sense, in a landscape where the laws of physics don’t seem to exist anymore. The journeys start sometime around the end of the Second World War and last for decades.
The self-propelled barge that Junior Seaman Vasily Khairtonov is on makes landfall on the far east of the country. His senior officer, the only other person left on the barge, disappears without instructions. Left with all the ammunition, Kharitonov puts it all together, combines several spools of Bickford fuse into a single thread, attaches one end to a stick of dynamite in the pile and the other to his duffel bag and takes off across the country. He wants to hand the fuse—and the decision of what to do about it—to a friendly if he meets one. Otherwise he will blow everything to bits.
The driver of a truck carrying a large searchlight rolls on in an endless night long after the truck has run out of petrol, first with a passenger and then with Gorych. They keep going, hoping for a dawn that doesn’t come.
Meanwhile, an airship is flying overhead with a single Occupant, sitting on a stool. The engine has died a long time ago, and it is floating with the wind with no hope of ever coming down.
The fourth traveller on a seemingly pointless journey is Andrey, the youngest son of a family who are part of a sect (though they seem to be the only members). They live in a remote area with no contact with any other person. Into this family comes the Invalid, a commander (maybe), who has frying-pan-shaped loudspeakers that broadcast news from a central command. His mission is to put them in remote places up so people are kept informed. But none of the broadcasts seem to make much sense. He talks Andrey into joining him, persuading him that the young man that he would be fighting for the Fatherland. Andrey, who had been wanting to leave, takes up the offer.
But is the war still on or has it been years since hostilities stopped? No one seems to know, but many are convinced that the battles are still raging, and spend their time fighting so-called enemies. The book is full of absurd situations: a camp for musician prisoners, a commander with his two officers in the forest who is convinced they are surrounded by enemies, a town with almost no men where everyone seems to work in a factory making straightjackets, an orchard with trees that bear no fruit because each tree is planted on the grave of a political prisoner, and the broadcasts from the “frying pans” that ask people to set their calendars to different years, depending on where they are.
Then there is the voice in Kharitonov’s dreams: an Englishman called William, born in the late 18th century, who tells him his story from childhood to after his death. William is connected to the seaman but we only find out how at the end.
In his introduction, Kurkov says that Russian leaders like Yeltsin and Krushchev tried to take the country forward but merely succeeded in returning to a mythical past. He blames this on “Soviet man” and The Bickford Fuse is his way of trying to understand Soviet man’s psychology.
All the men on their journeys—and many of the others—keep going because they have been told they must, there is a war on and the Fatherland needs protecting. There is no attempt to question or doubt, even when the circumstances are ridiculous. The war may be over—or not—but people still keep fighting it. No one really knows what is going on. “Go with the current or you’re done for,” says one of the characters.
This is a strange book that took me a while to get into. Kurkov writes about absurd situations in a very matter-of-fact way, as if they were just part of everyday reality. Although much of it doesn’t seem to make sense, yet it has its own kind of logic. Once I accepted the world that Kurkov creates, I enjoyed its unusual, dreamlike narrative.