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Death and the Penguin is a strange, surreal novel, which centres around the life Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov and his pet penguin Micha. The novel was originally written in Russian by the Ukranian Andrey Korkov, and has a dream like quality to it, where all the protagonists seem to be overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness and a lack of understanding about the world around them. This is not a run-of-the-mill novel: if you like black humour, political satire, and a main character with webbed feed and a strong line in pathos, then this will be your sort of read!
Andrey Kurkov was born in St Petersburg in 1961 and now lives in Kiev. During his life he has worked as a military translator as well as a writer, and the character of Viktor has a certain autobiographical element, reflecting Kurkov's own struggles to make a living through journalism.
Kurkov has published four novels and four books for children, as well as writing many journalistic pieces about Soviet life; Death and the Penguin is his debut novel. Later in his career he won acclaim as one of the most successful Ukrainian authors in the post-Soviet era and featured on European bestseller lists.
Viktor is a writer, who is "trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose". He lives in his flat in Kiev with a melancholy King Penguin, who he has acquired free of charge from the cash strapped Kiev Zoo. Struggling to make a living out of journalism, Viktor is recruited by Igor Lvovoch, the editor in chief of Capital News, to write obelisks (obituaries) for the paper, focussing on prominent figures in the community. Viktor is free to choose the (still living) subject of his obituaries from any aspect of Kiev society, but starts to become alarmed when the people he has just written about begin to die in very unexpected and violent ways.
Increasingly suspicious, but seemingly unable to do anything to find out what is happening, Viktor finds himself on the fringes of a violent society that he does not understand. Plaintively asking the newspaper chief, "Igor, what is the real nature of my work?", he is unable to give up writing his obituaries, despite his dark suspicions. Lulled into compliance by the financial rewards and the cloud of deceit around him, he stumbles through life, too afraid to take any real action to discover the secret.
Eventually the chilling truth behind the obelisks is revealed, but finding a way out of his predicament is something that does not come easily to Viktor, and will involve both loss and betrayal.
I loved the whole tone of this book; the strange and unfamiliar nature of post-Soviet life is brilliantly evoked, with countryside trips to the Dacha; random violence in the streets that the residents barely notice; and the underlying threat and paranoia that runs through everyday society. The dark threat of the underworld is never explicitly written about; the reader must, like Viktor, draw their own conclusions from the events that take place.
The story is told in a humourous, deadpan style which centres around the character of Micha the Penguin. Micha seems to reflect the confusion and worry felt by Viktor, and also manages to express the warmth that Viktor wants to give, but cannot. Micha reaches out to people wherever he goes, bringing friendship into Viktor's life. An insomniac penguin, who flip flaps around the house at night, heaving huge sighs of sorrow, Micha seems to be constantly searching for a happiness that is out of reach. The reader is never told if Micha is lonely, despondent at the state of Soviet society, or merely looking for a nice cold swim in icy water - but his character runs throughout the book as both a burden and a source of comfort for Viktor.
The characters are superbly drawn and the prose can be beautiful. Descriptions of the Ukraine bring Viktor's world to life, whether it is taking Micha swimming on the ice covered lake; celebrating New Year's Eve at the dasha, where gunshots mix with the celebratory fireworks across the fields; or sitting in the cancer ward with a dying friend.
George Bird's translation has been the subject of some criticism from the most literary journals, but I found that it captured the mood of Ukranian life very well. Although some slightly awkward phrasing makes sure that the reader never forgets that this is a translation, it never interrupts the flow of the book, or irritates. In fact I felt that it gave a certain charm, as well as reminding me that I was reading a original text from a very different part of the world.
This is probably the most unusual book I have ever read, but the evocative, foreign flavour of the writing has stayed with me for a long time.
Death and the Penguin is translated from the Russian by George Bird.
It was first published in English by Vintage in 2003.
ISBN 1860469450, 228p.