Death and the Penguin
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Publisher/Year: Vintage/2003 (Originally published in 1996)
Genre: Humour; Crime
Theme: A dark and humorous tale of a post-Soviet writer and his pet penguin as they get drawn into an increasingly dangerous world of crime
By and large, literature in the former Soviet states has struggled since the fall of the USSR, largely disappearing into a realm of relative obscurity. There have been some notable exceptions, though, and Kurkov's absurdist and dark satirical tales are in the forefront of contemporary of post-Soviet novels leading the charge. For some reason, I had often considering getting this Ukrainian novel but never actually got around to it until now. Ah, well, better late than never!
The tale is centred on Viktor, an aspiring writer, and his pet penguin Misha. While dreaming of greater success as a writer in his own right, Viktor pays the bills with a job as an obituary writer for a Kiev newspaper, unaware that it's actually a front for an underworld organisation and his obituaries serve as a hit list of enemies. While this is going on, Viktor also ends up having to take care of Sonya, daughter of his late friend Misha (dubbed Misha-non-penguin), and a nanny by the name of Nina (with whom Viktor shares a physical relationship) also gets integrated into the 'family.' All seems to be proceeding in a 'normal' manner, but without any semblance of life, until everything changes all at once. Misha ends up needing a heart transplant, following which Viktor decides Misha needs to return to Antarctica for a decent life. Meanwhile, Viktor also finds himself on the very hit list he had previously written obituaries for, and has to figure a way out. How the adventure unfolds in a series of strange incidents makes for an intriguing tale, one I leave to you without further spoilers.
This is a delightfully amusing read, a satirical and absurdist look at post-Soviet Ukraine and the very real struggles faced by many people. One suspects Kurkov would be dismayed by how reality continued to get darker and weirder (in a bad way) until it lined up with his own ideas, but there is little doubt that the basis was already in place. The settings and characters capture life in post-Soviet Ukraine, albeit extended ad absurdum, and provide a good idea of what it was like for the characters. The characters themselves, particularly Viktor and Misha, are engaging and interesting. And yes, the penguin is key and a well-defined character in his own right, not just a prop for a cutesy approach. The humorous style makes for an enjoyable read without taking away from the darkness at the heart of the tale, something Kurkov does brilliantly.
Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and a definite must read for those looking to get into more contemporary literature coming out of the former Soviet Union.