Kangaroo begins with a fatal phone call in 1949. Fan Fanych, alias “Etcetera,” crook extraordinaire, has been living and working both in jail and out on time borrowed from the MVD (KGB). When he hears the phone ring, he realizes that he is finally being called to account. Kidalla, the KGB investigator in charge of monitoring Fan’s activities, likes to keep tabs on the technological front and offers him a choice of computer-generated crimes. Fan discards various assassination attempts, Pan-Armenian plots, counterfeit bank note schemes, and a production of The Brothers Karamazov at the Central Theater of the Red Army. The option which attracts his attention is the bizarre case of Gemma the kangaroo, or, in official parlance, the “case of the vicious rape and murder of the aged kangaroo in the Moscow Zoo on the night of July 14, 1789, and January 9, 1905.” It is not surprising that this is the case which Kidalla has already chosen for him. They proceed to negotiate the conditions for Fan taking the fall: Fan’s terms include foreign newspapers in his cell, current films, and women.
Fan, as agreed, finds himself in a cozy private cell with potted geraniums and a private tutor. Professor Bolensky, age seventy-nine, has arrived to prepare Fan for his role as a violator of kangaroos, but the two are soon distracted by a parade of nubile young “stewardesses” and “waitresses”—KGB trainees seeking to pass their exams in “Obtaining Information During Foreplay with Enemies of the People.” In the month that they spend together in the cell, Fan learns his lessons in kangaroo physiology and the Professor learns his in sex and female psychology. In the process, the Professor falls in love with a six-foot-six basketball player, and she with him, and so bids a fond and grateful farewell to Fan.
More machinations follow, in the course of which Fan is reconditioned as a male kangaroo and meets “Kooler,” the inventor of the computer. Drugged, Fan passes out and awakens in a courtroom at his own trial. He, along with the rest of the spectators, is stunned by a film documenting the entire crime: pathetic shots of the murdered Gemma and the baby kangaroo in her pouch, of the sleeping watchman and the hordes of Muscovites combing the nearby woods in search of clues, of Gemma’s funeral escort replete with Australian and Soviet flags, and of Fan Fanych’s final desperate escape attempt inside an East German cow. The audience is alternately outraged and tearful, and so is Fan Fanych, especially since he is beginning to believe that it is he himself on the big screen. Only when the surrogate sneezes (something Fan never does) does Fan realize that he has been replaced.
Fan’s death sentence is never carried out, and he undergoes another experiment, a tinkering with his sense of time. That too fails, and he is led away—to be shot, he thinks. Instead, he finds himself in the back of a truck, dressed like a convict and headed for a labor camp. In the camp he encounters chief guard Dziuba, who claims to have shot 1,937 men in honor of the year 1937, and a gaggle of Old Bolsheviks—true believers who periodically dispatch their plans, resolutions, and suggestions to Vyacheslav Molotov or Lazar Kaganovich in the hope of vindication and who eagerly question Fan on “the enthusiasm of the masses and the international situation.” Fan takes a break from this “human zoo” of camp life to tell his invisible audience of one, Kolya, about his encounters with Adolf Hitler’s wallet and Josef Stalin’s feet. After a miserable decade or so of killing rats, the loyal comrades are set free, one by one. Only Chernyshevsky, their spokesman, and Fan are left. They while away the time by playing cards; Fan loses everything to Chernyshevsky (his bread ration until the KGB’s fiftieth anniversary and his soul until Stalin’s one hundredth) but survives—Chernyshevsky, too, is taken away.
Fan is freed shortly thereafter. Confused and hungover, he wakes up to a different world—one that is not, however, different enough. Stalin is dead but not out of the mausoleum yet. Slogans still overhang the streets. Fan returns to his communal apartment, falls in love, and goes to the KGB headquarters to find out what is happening. Kidalla, supposedly, is no longer there. Fan has been falsely accused and is scheduled to be rehabilitated and sent to the writers’ colony at Peredelkino to serve as a consultant on labor camp life for those authors unfortunate enough to miss out on this fashionable form of exile. Puzzled, he refuses, and returns to the scene of his supposed “crime.” He demonstrates the truth of his third eye, developed in the labor camp to hunt rats, to the same old drunken watchman and discovers that although Gemma really was murdered, she has been replaced by her baby. An eccentric Australian millionaire has left Fan a fortune for executing kangaroos, but the state takes most of it, and Fan and his drinking buddy Kolya are left with a piddling sum, which they use to drink to life and to tell Fan’s story.