For a few days, Samson Teofilowitsch Koletschko has seen the world a little redder than it is. When he looks into a burning candle in church, he sees a red glow. He knows that her flame is yellowish. “Oh my gosh,” says his doctor.
He discovers blood in Samson’s eye and a piece of brain that has dried on the cornea. Both come from Samson’s father, who was killed by a Red Army Cossack with a saber blow. The next blow hit Samson’s red-haired head and severed his right ear. He’s actually at the doctor’s to get the wound treated. Blood and piece of brain can be removed.
The world turns red
The world is slowly turning red, at least that applies to Kyiv in 1919, where Andrei Kurkov’s novel “Samson and Nadjezhda” is set. When there was a single power, the Ukrainian writer writes, “life seemed banal, understandable and familiar”. That was how it was under the Tsar and for a time also during the German military administration.
Now there is civil war, several powers are fighting each other. For the time being the Bolsheviks look like winners, they have occupied the city, but their rule remains fragile. The smell of burnt powder gives way to the stench of the garbage heaps that spring thaws by the roadside. Kyiv only became definitively Soviet two years later.
The fact that body parts can develop a life of their own is well known from Gogol’s story “The Nose”, in which an olfactory organ walks on Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg. Samson was quick-witted enough to catch his severed ear, later putting it in a box and keeping it on his desk.
So he hears how two Red Army soldiers who have billeted in his apartment are considering killing him. The ear will continue to serve him well after he enlists in the new Soviet police force. An unusual career move for a victim of red violence, but Samson was taken because he wrote a report protesting against the confiscation of furniture. “You can write,” says his supervisor Nadjen.
“Samson and Nadjeschda” is not only a crime novel, but also a picaresque novel. Samson – an orphan after the death of his father – saves himself through every mess because he stoically endures all upheavals. He might be a distant relative of the good soldier Švejk, just less talkative. “I will fight for order” is his simple professional ethos. As a police officer, he also receives meal vouchers for the communal kitchens, where there is bread with the soup.
Samson’s disinterest in politics distinguishes him from Nadjeschda, with whom his caretaker’s widow wants to set him up. Wouldn’t be necessary, because he falls in love with her anyway. Nadjezhda works in the government’s statistics office and wears a modern short hairstyle.
Future people are humble
Her point of view: “I am trying to set an example for the future man.” Determined, industrious and humble are the future men, which also includes people who come from the past life. Against which there would be little objection.
Samson is called Samson because his parents met at the Samson Fountain. “If he hadn’t existed, then I wouldn’t have existed either,” he says when he takes Nadjeschda there. “How touching!”, she replies, “you are a darling”. Samson opening the mouth of a lion on the well was believed to be invincible, which turned out to be a mistake. Kurkow’s Samson does not have such physical strength, his greatest strength is tenacity.
The tsarist detectives have been fired, but the power of the new militia also rests on bureaucracy. Because there is no paper, the investigators have to write on the backs of old files. Samson gets his first case rolling by submitting a report to his own crime department and having his boss sign it.
It’s about Anton and Fyodor, the Red Army soldiers from his apartment. They brought in two sacks of stolen goods, including a silver bone and odd-sized sewing patterns from a tailor’s shop.
Kyiv is a city of fear. It is advisable not to leave the house at night and to lock the doors tightly.
Atone with blood
Then the hard marching of army boots can be heard on the streets, secret service vehicles cast yellowish headlights on facades. Chekists argue about who is best at shooting the enemies of the proletariat, with hands that don’t tremble. In the case of the two Red Army soldiers who exaggerated the requisitioning, it is clear that they must “atone with blood” for their crime.
Violence is omnipresent, it comes out of nowhere and can hit anyone, just like Samson’s father. The arbitrariness of death is the greatest terror.
It’s hard not to think about the current situation in Kyiv while reading and the bombs and rockets that fell there. Andrei Kurkov has said in interviews that he is currently unable to write any literature because he is busy producing texts about the war. Samson deserves a sequel. We hope for a time when Kurkow will write them.