The Silver Bone, originally written in Russian, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

Kyiv, 1919. The Soviets control the city, but White armies menace them from the West. No man trusts his neighbour and any spark of resistance may ignite into open rebellion. When Samson Kolechko’s father is murdered, his last act is to save his son from a falling Cossack sabre. Deprived of his right ear instead of his head, Samson is left an orphan, with only his father’s collection of abacuses for company. Until, that is, his flat is requisitioned by two Red Army soldiers, whose secret plans Samson is somehow able to overhear with uncanny clarity. Eager to thwart them, he stumbles into a world of murder and intrigue that will either be the making of him – or finish what the Cossack started.

Written by Andrey Kurkov and Boris Dralyuk

Publication date and time: Published

Samson was deafened by the sound of the sabre striking his father’s head. He caught the glint of the flashing blade out of the corner of his eye and stepped into a puddle. His already dead father’s left hand pushed him aside, so that the next sabre neither quite struck nor quite missed his ginger-haired head, slicing off his right ear. He managed to reach out and catch the falling ear, clutching it in his fist before it hit the gutter. His father, meanwhile, collapsed right onto the road, his head split in two. A horse stamped the body into the ground with a hind leg’s shod hoof before its rider dug in his spurs and charged forward at a dozen townsfolk who were running and leaping into the gutters, realising what awaited them. Five more riders galloped past. 

But Samson didn’t see them. He was lying flat against the slope of the gutter, the palm of his left hand open on the wet earth and the fist of his right hand tucked under his head. His wound burned and burned, loudly and sonorously, as if someone were hammering a steel rail right above it. Hot blood poured down his cheek and seeped under his collar. 

It started raining again. Samson raised his head. He saw before him the sole of his father’s dark-blue English-made high button shoe, which, though splattered with mud, still looked noble. His father had worn them constantly and carefully for five years, since 1914, when a shoe dealer on Khreshchatyk, spooked by the outbreak of war, had lowered the price, rightly sensing that international hostilities didn’t bode well for the sale of fashionable goods. 

Samson didn’t wish to see his dead father in full, with his head split open, so he crawled backwards along the gutter, tightly clutching the severed ear. He got out on the road, but couldn’t straighten up. For a moment he just stood there, thin and hunched over, not allowing himself to turn round. When he at last took a couple of steps, he tripped over a corpse. Samson made his way around the body, but then an awful roar again assaulted his head, pouring like molten tin into the hole that had been his ear. He pressed his fist against the bleeding wound, as if trying to plug it shut, to block the noise that had burst into his head. Then he started running. He was simply running away, but it happened to be in the direction from which he and his father had come, towards Zhylianska Street, where he had been born and raised. Amid the general roar, he made out individual gunshots, but these didn’t stop him. He ran past confused, aimless townsfolk, all of them staring blankly, and when he felt that he could go no further, that his legs were giving out, he spotted a large sign above the door of a two-storey house: DR N. N. VATRUKHIN, SPECIALIST IN DISEASES OF THE EYE. 

Samson ran up and pulled the door handle with his left hand. Closed. He knocked with his fist. 

“Open up!” he shouted. 

Now he pounded the door with both fists. 

“What do you want?” a woman’s frightened voice asked from within. 

“A doctor!” 

“Nikolay Nikolaevich isn’t seeing patients today.” 

“He has to! He’s got to see me!” 

“Who is it, Tonya?” a rich male baritone asked from deeper within. 

“Someone out in the street,” the old woman responded. 

“Let them in.” 

The door opened a crack and the old woman peeked out at blood-stained Samson. She allowed him inside and immediately slammed the door shut behind him, double bolting it. 

“Oh, Lord! Who did that to you?” 

 “Cossacks. Where’s the doctor?” 

“Let’s go …” 

Andrey Kurkov

The doctor, smooth-shaven and grey, silently treated Samson’s wound, applied a gauze pad with ointment and bandaged his head. 

Somewhat calmed by the noiseless flat, Samson looked at the doctor in quiet gratitude and unclenched his right fist. 

“Can the ear … be saved?” he asked, barely audible. 

“I couldn’t say.” The doctor shook his head sadly. “I’m an ophthalmologist. Who was it?” 

“Don’t know.” The young man shrugged. “Cossacks.” 

“Red anarchy,” Vatrukhin replied, heaving a heavy sigh. Then he went over to the table, rummaged in the top drawer, took out a powder box and brought it back to his patient. 

Samson removed the lid. The box was empty. The doctor tore off a piece of cotton wool and lined its bottom. The young man lowered his ear into the box, closed it and stuck it into the patch pocket of his tunic. 

He looked up at the doctor. 

“My father’s still out there,” he said, wincing. “On the road. Hacked to death.” 

The doctor smacked his lips bitterly and shook his head. 

“One can’t even leave the house, these days,” he said, throwing up his hands. “What are you going to do?” 

“I don’t know. I’ve got to go and get him …” 

“Do you have money?” 

“He did, in his wallet. We were on our way to the tailor’s, to pick up a suit.” 

“Let’s go, then,” Vatrukhin pronounced, gesturing towards the door. 

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He managed to reach out and catch the falling ear, clutching it in his fist before it hit the gutter. His father, meanwhile, collapsed right onto the road, his head split in two.

This time, the streets were deserted. The crack of rifle fire sounded in the distance. The sky seemed to be leaning lower and lower over the blood-engorged town, as if preparing to lie down for the night on its roofs and cemeteries. 

When they reached Nimetska Street, where Symon Petliura’s horsemen had overtaken Samson and his father, they saw ahead of them two carts and about a dozen men in peasant garb. Several corpses had already been lifted onto one of the carts, but Samson’s father still lay on the side of the road. Only now he was barefoot – someone had taken his English shoes. 

Samson bent over the body, trying to avoid looking at the head. Reaching his hand under his father’s chest, he felt for the wallet in his coat’s inner pocket and pulled it out. The wallet’s plumpness surprised and somewhat embarrassed him. He slipped it into the pocket of his tunic, rose to his feet and looked back at the carts. 

“Need me to take it somewhere?” asked the peasant holding the empty cart’s horse by the bridle. 

“Yes, I do.” Samson nodded and looked back at the doctor. 

“What is the closest funeral home?” the doctor asked. 

“That’d be Gladbach’s,” the peasant replied. “Got money on you? I don’t take any of them ‘coupons’ they’re printing these days.” 

“We have Kerensky roubles,” the doctor assured him. 

“Alright, then.” The man nodded. “Let me give you a hand with ’im – wouldn’t want that mess all over your clothes …” 

Samson glanced down at his dirty trousers and tunic, then he and the peasant both bent over his father’s body. 

On Tuesday, 11 March 1919, his life as he knew it was over. 

Portrait of translator Boris Dralyuk