A crime mystery with magical elements, set in 1919 Kyiv during a time of chaos, shifts of power and random violence, shot through with Kurkov’s sense of irony and the absurd

Whether you’re new to The Silver Bone or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading. 

Written by Paul Davies

Publication date and time: Published


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 the father of teenager Samson Kolechko 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 Cossacks started. Inflected with Andrey Kurkov’s signature humour and magical realism, The Silver Bone crafts a propulsive narrative that bursts to life with rich historical detail. It is translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk.

Khreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare in Kyiv, Ukraine, Soviet Union, circa 1925

The main characters

Samson Kolechko: a naive and sensitive young police investigator, whose father is brutally murdered at the beginning of the novel. The book follows Samson as he tackles his first case, involving two murders – of a soldier and a tailor – and two unusual pieces of evidence: a fine but very large set of English clothes and a long, mysterious bone made of pure silver. While apparently lacking essential detective skills, Samson is aided by the supernatural powers of his own severed ear.

Nadezhda: a tough, smart and eminently sensible census-taker in the statistics office who assists Samson’s enquiries and with whom he develops a romantic attachment. Nadezhda is no minor character: the book was originally published in Ukraine as Samson and Nadezhda.

About the author and translator

Born near Leningrad in 1961, Andrey Kurkov was a journalist, prison warder, cameraman and screenwriter before he became well-known as a novelist. After ‘hundreds of rejections’, Kurkov became a successful pioneer of self-publishing, selling more than 75,000 copies of his books in a single year. His novel Death and the Penguin, his first in English translation, became an international bestseller, translated into more than 30 languages. As well as writing fiction for adults and children, Kurkov has become known as a commentator and journalist on Ukraine for the international media. His work of reportage, Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev, was published in 2014, followed by the novel The Bickford Fuse (2016). He lives in Kiev with his British wife and their three children. Kurkov was a judge for the International Booker Prize 2009. His novel Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023.

Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He taught Russian literature for a number of years at UCLA and at the University of St Andrews. He is a co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, as well as Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse. In 2020 he received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Non-fiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly

Portrait of translator Boris Dralyuk

What the critics said

Mythili G Rao, Financial Times:

‘Translated from the Russian by poet Boris Dralyuk, Kurkov’s prose is brisk but capacious, with a quiet flair. The innumerable annoyances and small indignities of living through conflict (persistent lice, gelatinous porridge, insufficient kindling, erratic power outages) are presented in all their grating detail. And though it is clear-eyed in its depiction of war’s sheer senselessness, The Silver Bone has an unusual poetic lightness too.’ 

Julian Evans, Telegraph:

‘It’s really Kyiv, a city Kurkov knows perfectly, that plays the leading role, its geography and lawlessness sharpening the tense atmosphere. Kurkov first published this novel in 2020, two years before Putin’s full invasion of his country, but an eerie contemporaneity stalks its pages. The city’s blackouts, a consequence of its firewood having been stolen, have echoes of today’s Kyiv, blacked out by Russian missile strikes.’

Publishers Weekly:

‘Kurkov eschews conventional mystery plotting – the eponymous bone isn’t discovered until two-thirds of the way through the novel – but the finely drawn characters and harrowing descriptions of daily life in 1919 Kyiv leave a far more lasting impression than clever genre tricks ever could. With its earthy prose and stunning attention to detail, this stands apart.’

What the International Booker Prize judges said

‘A surprising book from Ukrainian novelist and journalist Andrey Kurkov, The Silver Bone is a crime mystery set in 1919 Kyiv during a time of chaos, shifts of power and random violence in the aftermath of war. But amidst the brutality is Kurkov’s sense of irony and absurdism. A young engineering student sees his father cut down by Cossacks and, moments later, a sabre cuts off his own right ear. He manages to catch it and keep it in a box, where it can still hear for him, wherever he is. Inspired by real-life, post-First World War Bolshevik secret police files, Kurkov’s novel creates an atmosphere that ranges from 19th century Russian literature to the immediacy of the current war in Ukraine, even though it was initially published before Putin’s invasion.’

Group photo of the International Booker Prize 2024 Judges; William Kentridge, Natalie Diaz, Eleanor Wachtel, Aaron Robertson and Romesh Gunesekera.

What the author said

‘I’ve always been interested in the period around the end of the First World War. One of my first unpublished novels dealt with events at that time, and this book is set in 1919, during the four-year war in which Ukraine declared its independence following the collapse of the Russian empire and then lost it again. Within four years power changed hands 14 times. It was a time of incredible instability. Some people stayed in Kyiv through the whole thing, adapting to the changes; others retreated with the losing factions; many were killed. It was a tough and dangerous time, and also a fascinating one. And here we are again – whether to turn it into a Soviet or a Russian republic or something else, Russia is trying to take over Ukraine.’

Read the full interview in the Guardian

‘My books are now not published in Russian, because bookshops in Ukraine don’t want to sell books in Russian, because Putin turned the language into the language of the enemy, in spite of the fact that 30 to 40 per cent of Ukrainians are Russian-speakers. Now, lots of people are changing language, switching to Ukrainian.’k

Read the full interview in the Telegraph

Andrey Kurkov

What the translator said

‘A large part of professionalisation is learning about yourself, about what you need – mentally, emotionally, physically – in order to do your best work. Is your mind clearest in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening? How quickly can you translate? How many words of prose can you render each day before losing steam? How much coffee do you need, and how much is too much? One discovers these things over time, often the hard way. And they change – so it’s important to keep watching yourself, adjusting. When I was starting out, I translated omnivorously, at breakneck speed. The practice was useful, but the results were, as you can imagine, mixed… I learned soon enough that I can seldom translate, at a high level, more than 500 words of prose a day. It’s still the case that I move quickly when I translate poems, but two things have changed: I now translate only those poems that speak to me, that won’t let me go; and after I complete a draft, I share it with my most trusted readers, read it after the first blush of inspiration fades, let it sit as I wait for the second and third blushes to arrive, revisit it again – I put the poem through its paces. To sum up, I now have more faith in my personal taste in literature and less faith in my initial satisfaction with my own work.’

Read the full interview in Punctured Lines

Questions and discussion points

The novel begins in 1919, during another war between Ukrainians and Russians. Kurkov wrote the book before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, yet it is impossible not to draw modern comparisons, not least because Kurkov has since become one of the major international commentators on the dire situation in his homeland. Discuss how your reading of the novel is shaped by current events in Ukraine – is it ever possible to read historical fiction without one eye on the present?

According to the Financial Times, ‘Samson is revealed to be thoughtful, sensitive, expressive; in other words, not altogether suited for police work’. In this respect he comes from a lineage of deeply flawed detectives at the centre of crime novels. Discuss the extent to which Samson possesses the characteristics of other great literary detectives.

According to the Guardian, ‘The genesis of The Silver Bone came when a reader gave Kurkov a large cache of Bolshevik secret police files from the post-first world war period. “The papers belonged to her late father, who was a KGB officer in Soviet times and later worked for the Ukrainian secret service,” he says. “The documents were packed with these strange details of daily life in Kyiv during wartime, and it was this texture I wanted to get across in the novel.” Discuss the ways Kurkov manages to balance accurate and realistic historical detail with aspects of the magical and supernatural. Are the book’s realistic and magical elements at odds with one another, or does each heighten the effect of the other?

Also in the Guardian, Kurkov says that the crime narrative, and the figure of the detective in the form of young Samson seeking justice and order amid the mayhem of war, gave him a way of exploring and illuminating a society under extreme stress. Can you think of any other examples where an author uses the conventions of crime fiction to make a broader statement about a society in crisis? If so, how do those examples compare with Kurkov’s efforts?

Kurkov is often described as a blackly comic and satirical writer, although following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 he said he ‘didn’t feel ready to laugh at anything’ and had temporarily stopped writing fiction in order to focus on non-fiction. Discuss the ways in which Kurkov uses humour to make serious observations in The Silver Bone. Would you say that humour is essential in providing an optimistic outlook, even in the darkest of circumstances? 

Resources and further reading

How Ukraine’s greatest novelist is fighting for his country, New York Times

Andrey Kurkov on shock, optimism and the resilience of ordinary people, CBC Radio

Eye on Ukraine: Andrey Kurkov in Conversation, The Conduit


If you enjoyed this book why not try…

Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Reuben Woolley

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Sam Taylor

Sweet Darusya by Maria Matios, translated by Michael Naydan and Olha Tytarenko