Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth is a 300-pound boulder-throwing mountain man from Siberia whose tribal homeland is stolen by an American lawyer out to build a butterfly conservatory for wealthy tourists. In order to restore his people’s land and honor, Muzhduk must travel to Harvard Law School to learn how to throw words instead of boulders. His anarchic adventures span continents, from Siberia to Cambridge to Africa, as he fights fellow students, Tuareg rebels, professors of law, dark magic, bureaucrats, heatstroke, postmodernists, and eventually time and space. A wild existential comedic romp, The Ugly tells the tale of a flawed and unlikely hero struggling against the machine that shapes the people who govern our world.
When I read the blurb on Netgalley I wasn't sure whether this book fitted within the magic realism remit of this blog. I still don't know. It is hard to tell in this novel what is real, surreal, magic or indeed the consequence of the central character imbibing too much alcohol derived from the urine of fly-agaric eating reindeer.
The book follows two alternating narratives - that of Muzhduk's journey to and time in Harvard and that of his later travels in Africa to save his girlfriend. This technique of interwoven narratives seems to be very popular at the moment if my reading is anything to go by. There is a inherent difficulty in this structure in that both narratives have to retain the reader's interest. I am not sure it entirely works in The Ugly. I was more interested in the African narrative than in the word-throwing world of Harvard.
This novel comes from a tradition of satire that goes back centuries. A larger than life (literally) central character travels from a "simple" homeland and encounters a "sophisticated" other world. By dint of native intelligence, strength and naivity, the hero is able to take on the strange world he finds himself in. This book doesn't stop at revealing the false nature of the rituals and sophist arguments that are held in high esteem at the university and wider society. No. Boldizar goes further and introduces the surreal into the equasion. Muzhduk has a fling with witch-like tutor Oedda, and encounters a blue bear (based on the Harvard tradition of the Pooh tree). The surreal and magical of course appear in the African narrative, as they should. But I wonder whether it was necessary to have them so intensively in both strands.
When I read the prologue to the book - that section set in the Slovakian enclave in Siberia (there is a brilliant explanation for this in the novel) - I thought "Wow, this is going to be great." But as Muzhduk moves to Harvard my enjoyment lessened. There was still some fun, but I found myself skipping chunks of the long legal dialogues. This is a first novel and it shows. Boldizar was the first post-independence Slovakian to go to Harvard, where, surprise surprise, he read law. He also spent time working in the Sahara. There is just too much going on in this book for my liking. Dare I say it - the author is having rather too much fun.