Review: Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov

Penguins really add something to a funeral

I love penguins.  They are awesome.  I have very early happy childhood memories watching the Penguin Parade at Edinburgh Zoo, sadly the penguins got poorly about ten years ago and got out of the habit of parading so it has faded into one of those things that you remember from childhood as being way better than they are now.  Still, I was there again at the enclosure earlier this year and penguins just make me happy.  And you may also be able to imagine that it is very rare to find a book for adults where a penguin is one of the main characters – so when I saw a crime fiction novel called Death and the Penguin, it’s no surprise that I bought it.


Death and the Penguin features the adventures of Viktor Zolotaryov, a struggling writer, stating in its blurb that all that stands between one man and death by the Mafia is a penguin.  Viktor felt felt lonely after his girlfriend left him and with the Ukraine zoo too poor to pay for the upkeep of its animals, he adopted Misha the Penguin.  Still, the two of them are just lonely together rather than being good company for each other.  The thing is that that part was true – Ukraine is a very cash-strapped country and the events which transpire shortly afterwards are not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility, despite being an exercise in the absurd.  I watched a documentary earlier this week about the racism rampant in Ukraine and it is fairly obvious that the corruption depicted in Death and the Penguin is not fictional.

So – Viktor, struggling writer.  Lives with a penguin.  His short stories aren’t getting him any work, but he does find employment as an obituary writer.  Now, he doesn’t write these on demand.  Instead, he is asked to write obituaries for notable figures who are still alive to have them ‘to hand’ for when the inevitable day comes.  For quite a while, Viktor is disappointed that despite his magnificent ‘obelisks’, none of his work is being printed because not only are none of his subjects dead, ‘none of them are even ill’.  But then … oh no.  Things start to change.  It isn’t just one of the objects of the obelisks who are passing on, it’s the whole job lot.  And one example of these demises is a man who died while cleaning a window.  In a building that wasn’t his.  At night.

The novel is written in a very dead-pan way – in a way in reminded me a of The Outsider (The Camus one, not The Outsiders) with the way that Viktor just failed to really engage on an emotional level with what was going on.  He registers it, he doesn’t question it, he moves on.  This is really underlined when he meets another Misha who he refers to as Misha non-penguin because of course otherwise he would not have been able to distinguish between the two, one being human and one being a bird and all.  Viktor just doesn’t seem to take things in.  Misha non-penguin turns out to be from a rival clan and abruptly disappears, leaving his young daughter Sonya in Viktor’s care.  Still, Viktor just dawdles on, writing obituaries and taking care of Misha the penguin and Sonya, casually going on the run during the New Year period when warned to do so by the Chief at the paper.

Later, the Chief also goes on the run to Viktor’s flat, sending Viktor back to the office to pick up a briefcase which Viktor notices contains Viktor’s pre-written obituaries, with dates for them to be ‘processed’.  At last that which was obvious any way becomes clear.  Viktor is writing obituaries about people who are to be assassinated and he is writing them for the people who will be doing the assassinating.  The things you do to earn a living, eh?  Viktor doesn’t really react to this revelation, he just quietly gets on with his work and to be fair, it’s pretty clear he has no real alternative.  

Viktor is a hard guy to like … he doesn’t connect with those around him, Kurkov makes no attempt to win sympathy for him by creating a bond between him and the child he has under his care.  Equally, when Viktor hires a nanny for Sonya, Viktor floats into a relationship with the nanny but again, no real emotion for either of them.  When his friend dies, again, very little true feeling.  He is irritated – not angry – just irritated when it is implied that they have formed a family, he is disinterested.  And yet, Viktor is willing to go to extraordinary (even criminal) lengths to mend his penguin’s broken heart.  

The parallels between Viktor and Penguin Misha are very much underlined, highlighted and floodlit.  One of the final lines of the novel has Viktor admit, “I am the penguin”.  The elderly ‘penguinologist’ (I want a job doing that) who Viktor consults about Misha’s well-being comments that if he were a penguin in the Ukraine he’d ‘do [himself] in’.  Viktor and the penguin share a bleak outlook on the world.  I was interested to read that Kurkov intended the novel to be a portrait of post-Soviet chaos – the silent penguin is a metaphor for the way in which Ukrainian people fail to speak up against corruption: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries such as Ukraine now find themselves bewildered and trying to build a new set of rules.  I kind of got it (former English student here) after all penguins are herd creatures, so are people, take them out of their native environment and they do not do well – Misha does badly as an outsider, so does Viktor.  The grimness of Ukraine was vividly portrayed, with hospitals that could not even provide pain relief let alone cures and where there was no recourse, nobody to complain to.  Money makes the world go round, but explicitly so in this novel where penguins are hired for mobsters funerals at $1000 a time ‘to give it class’ while ambulances will not collect the dying for less than $500.  Take out the penguin and none of this is a lie.

This was an odd read.  The mafia story I didn’t completely understand, I know that there’s a second one and oddly enough I want to read it to find out what happens to the blessed penguin.  It finishes on something of a cliffhanger, with Viktor realising that he is about to be murdered yet in his escape he does not worry for his ‘girlfriend’ or young Sonya but rather for … can we guess … yes we can, the penguin.  Without the penguin, this would have been the story of a writer caught out by the mafia, with the penguin, it’s a black comedy.  I really liked the style, the short sentences give it a dead-pan quality, it’s a book that shouldn’t work – it’s talking about loneliness and death and the problems of living in a post-Soviet world with humour and of course a penguin.  

It’s the whole idea that when assassinating someone, the honourable thing is to have a well written obituary, or to provide a penguin at their funeral to be respectful.  Viktor discovers about his own imminent demise because he reads his own poorly-written obit and is furious about the shoddy workmanship.  After pages and pages of Viktor not relating to his ‘friends’ or ‘girlfriends’, finally Viktor shows emotion.  I didn’t love this book but I enjoyed it, it was a fresh and different read and Kurkov has successfully pulled off a novel that has a penguin as one of its main characters.  With Viktor last seen boarding a plane to Antarctica to escape death at the hands of the Mafia, I actually felt a real desire to buy the next one.  And it was mostly so I can find out what had happened to the wretched penguin.

Face it – penguins are just cool and you know it.

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Death And The Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
Published by Random House on June 1st 2011
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 240
ISBN: 9781446483367

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