Posted by: cousindampier | 4 June 2012

Death and the Penguin

Andrey Kurkov is writing in the shadow of prior Russian literature.  This is only unfortunate because as his work reaches America, it will be compared to giants past, both figuratively and literally.  Krukov is much shorter than those giants: more absurdly black, more to the point; yet he still carries some of the style of a Solzhenitsyn.  Death and the Penguin is about a man and his penguin in Ukraine in the post-Soviet era, where men do not face conditions because they are stoic, but rather because those conditions are normal.

The absurdity of the story makes Kurkov’s book fun, and if asked to describe how the story was to read, I would reply with that same word.  It was absurdly fun to read.  The story centers around Viktor, a hopeful writer living in a spartan apartment in Kiev.  His only companion is his penguin, Misha, whom he adopted from the Kiev Zoo after his caretakers no longer could afford to feed it.  Given a job writing future obituaries of distinguished Ukrainians for the local paper, Vikor soon finds the people he writes about are very soon deceased, often via suspected foul play.

All the while his companion is his faithful penguin.  Misha and Viktor share the absurd – tricking an ice fisherman to believe he is, indeed, seeing penguins after consuming too much vodka – as well as the sentimental, for as Viktor struggles rather existentially with the question of investigating the murders he is unknowingly pre-profiling, Misha snuggles up to Viktor’s leg or rubs Viktor’s neck with his beak.  This would all be normal, and indeed passages are read with a warming glow before remembering Misha is a goddamn penguin.

Yet Misha does not just play the funny bird to Viktor’s straight man.  The humour stems from the absurd – a man hired to write obituaries at a fantastic sum, whose simple nature is soon abused and used as he provides safety for fleeing mob members and provides his penguin as a funeral prop, and seeing his the objects of his writings dead days after he completes the story of their lives.  Despite the conditions in Kiev, Viktor is stoic in ways – sometimes willingly and ignorantly so, but facing an ever-turbulent life as  normally as he can.  It is the mixture of stoicism and absurdity which make Death and the Penguin fun to read.

The life of Viktor is reflected in Misha.  Both are out of their element, and as soon as Misha falls ill and moves to the animal hospital, Viktor’s life begins to fall apart.  The questions he has been pondering suddenly mean nothing, and he is forced to act – and yet, even then, Kurkov disguises the conspiracy, revealing it in a cliffhanging end.

So while Kurkov will be compared to Russian giants, Death and the Penguin reveals the difficulty of living in a post-dictatorship, where money can buy anything, and the rules of life and death, and making of money itself, involves the mob.


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