Viktor, a 40-year-old would-be writer lives alone. He has no family, no friends, no colleagues, only a pet, a king penguin called Misha, which he got from the zoo in Kiev when animals were given away because they couldn't be fed any more*. One day he gets lucky when a local newspaper editor hires him, he's to compose obituaries of Ukrainian notables who're still alive, though. It's not what he's been dreaming of, but it's a job at least - and a well paid one at that.
One day the man who usually brings him the list of names to write on, brings his 4-year-old daughter with him, a gun and a fat wad of dollars. He tells Viktor that he's responsible for the girl now and disappears, never to be seen again. Viktor hires a 20-year-old girl as nanny who soon shares his bed with him.
So all is well, Viktor's got an ersatz family now? Not at all, he discovers that the people he's written obituaries on die ominous deaths. He feels uncomfortable, threatened, dark forces at work, but when he asks the editor what all the strange things mean, he hears, "The full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required."
In my opinion this novel has suffered over-interpretation due to its exoticness. A novel from post-Soviet Ukraine! Written in Russian! From a blurb, 'It may...get Russian literature going again after the post-Soviet hiatus.' I wonder if the writer of this sentence has ever read Soviet Russian literature at all. Believe it or not, there were readable books even before the hiatus. The problem is, of course, the language barrier which sadly often leads to intellectual arrogance: what is not translated, doesn't exist.
Now that a novel has been translated the critics rush to it and see things of which I doubt that they're in it. 'An urban satire of the structures of corruption that communism left behind'. Indeedy! It's obvious that the Mafia is behind the deaths. The Mafia came into being and developed in Sicily , now the term stands for organised crime worldwide. It *is* a phenomenon in Russia and the other republics that have become independent states, but it definitely came into being after the end of the Soviet Union, not before.
We learn something about everyday life in the Ukraine? To do so the reader must look at the so-called realia, how is the setting described, what is mentioned to pad the story, what do the protagonists 'do'? Little can be got here in that respect. Some quarters of Kiev are mentioned by name, we learn that there's a Hydropark with restaurants and playgrounds. Not only rich people have a dacha, a cottage in the countryside. Viktor drinks more cognac than vodka and a lot of coffee. Can't be called abundant information.
'Kurkov conjures up both Gogol and Dostoevsky...'. What? Why not Tolstoy and, say, Pushkin as well? Google can help with the names of other famous Russian writers of the pre-Soviet era to help a critic sound as if they knew what they were talking about.
I think we should look at what is in the text and hasn't to be interpreted into it. Why did Viktor get a penguin from the zoo and not, say, a rabbit? What I find funny is that a lot is made of the penguin's animalness when it comes to feeding, we're told several times what he eats, what he likes and what he dislikes. But things are only put into him, never does anything come out of him! If this were a realistic story, we should learn about the stink in the flat produced by the penguin and his fish food and, above all, the poo. But not a word!
The idea to give Viktor a penguin as a pet is brilliant. People love penguins as became clear when the film The March of the Penguins hit the cinemas. They're only birds with a bird's brain but they seem to be able to think and have feelings. Misha, Viktor's penguin, occasionally suffers from bouts of depression caused by his loneliness. It's clear that he is there to mirror Viktor's character traits. "Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary loneliness, creating more of interdependence than of amity".
Misha is traditionally the pet name for bears, read what a critic makes of this, "We may suspect that he (the penguin) represents the Russian nation, reduced by the dissolution of Communism from the powerfully ursine to the flightless avian." "Nonsense", says I! When Viktor is asked to attend the funerals of some of the people he's written obituaries on, Misha is especially asked to accompany him, in his black and white attire he's just the perfect mourner. Viktor would definitely never have been asked to bring a rabbit. So the penguin has a structural role in the story and this is especially obvious for the ending. It happens rarely that I become so curious and impatient that I have to glance at the last pages, here I had to do it. When you know the end, you know Viktor's pet simply *has* to be a penguin!
For me the most striking feature of the novel is its absurdity. When Viktor has to go away for some days, he calls the policeman of his district and asks him if he could feed his penguin. He agrees at once, no questions asked as if feeding an unknown citizen's pet penguin is just the thing to do. The excursion to the frozen river Dnepr to give Misha the opportunity of swimming in the holes anglers have hacked into the ice is also a gem.
There are some absurdly funny situations but also some touching ones. Given his grumpy nature which even the cute little girl can't get through it's surprising what Viktor does for the penguinologist he gets to know. But the overall atmosphere is Kafkaesque I'd say (to continue with name dropping), Viktor is threatened but doesn't understand by whom. His situation is bleak and hopeless, he gets small glimpses but never sees the whole picture. The ending is Kurkov's, however, it's the utter triumph of absurdity.
Andrey Yurevich Kurkov was born in Leningrad in 1961, he's a Ukrainian but writes in Russian. The Ukrainian literary movement isn't any too pleased about this, but of course, he gets more readers in this way. He's written 13 novels and 5 books for children, his work is currently translated into 25 languages. The translation into English is not perfect in my opinion, it's a bit bumpy at times. A translation is perfect if the reader doesn't notice that it is one, this is not the case here.
Recommended to the lovers of the absurd and surreal. Digging for deeper meanings is allowed, of course, but not necessary, in any case it doesn't lead to more insight.
*This is a true story.
RRP 7,99 GBP
originally published in 1996
published in English in 2001
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.