Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin

I discovered after I’d written this that Kurkov was in India recently. I suppose that makes this topical.

There’s so much more to say about Death and the Penguin. People who know more about it than me could probably say a lot about the novel’s depiction of post-Soviet Ukraine (or people who know less about it but also have less of an aversion to the pontificating of ignorant foreigners).

I also found that the flat acceptingness of its characters’ reactions to the things that go on around them had one unexpected result–that I found myself reading it as a queer novel when this same attitude was extended to the relationships between its men. You have Misha non-penguin who has met Viktor only a couple of times arranging the death of a man only because Viktor’s quite proud of the piece he wrote on him. Sergey, who takes Viktor and his newfound charge into his home to celebrate an intimate Christmas, sitting together watching Sonya and Misha playing on the ice.

From this weekend’s column:


When Elizabeth Taylor died a couple of years ago, it was revealed that the principal writer of the New York Times obituary for the actress had in fact predeceased her by quite a few years. This was the first time, I suspect, that many readers had come across the practice of publications keeping obituaries of important people ready, and updating them occasionally.

When Viktor, a failed writer in Kiev, gets a job writing these premature obituaries for a newspaper, things seem to be going very well for him. He may not have the immediate satisfaction of seeing his work in print (his subjects remain stubbornly healthy at first) but he has a steady job and is making extra money from freelance work. He also meets and befriends a militiaman named Sergey and forms a bond with the daughter of one of his clients. Until this point Viktor’s only companion has been a rather unusual pet.

Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin begins with a joke. A military man sees a subordinate standing with a penguin and orders him to take it to the zoo. Later, seeing the same man with the same penguin, he asks why his orders were not obeyed. But he did take the penguin to the zoo, says the subordinate, and to the circus, and now the pair are on their way to the cinema.

Within the novel, the presence of a king penguin within Viktor’s household is given a plausible, if not particularly likely, explanation. Apparently the Kiev zoo can no longer afford to keep all its animals and has distributed them among citizens who are willing to take them. Hence Misha, who spends a great deal of time staring at himself in the mirror, and enjoys cold baths (he comes “plip-plopping” at the sound of running water) and fish.

Yet soon the subjects of Viktor’s columns begin to die in mysterious circumstances; one of them “fell from a sixth-floor window – was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night”.  A man who has occasionally given him work disappears, leaving Viktor in charge of his daughter, Sonya. Various threatening figures seem to be taking an interest in Viktor and he and Sonya are forced to go into hiding. And who is the mysterious plump young man who seems to be collecting information about him?

On the surface Death and the Penguin could easily be a crime thriller. But Kurkov is less interested in the events of the plot (who is killing these people? why? how are the breaking into Viktor’s home and leaving him money?) than he is in Viktor himself, an ordinary man caught in increasingly absurd circumstances. George Bird’s translation captures much of the book’s willingness to play with the genre. On the first page itself we get the dramatic “a shot rang out”, but the book will never tell us why or who fired it; instead Viktor writes a story about it and it is forgotten.

In addition there’s a curious flatness to these characters’ reactions to the strange and alarming things that are happening to them. Informed that his new friend is on the run from assassins, Sergey shrugs and invites Viktor to spend the holidays with him. Sonya hardly seems to notice her father’s disappearance. The only person who seems to react to his circumstances as you might expect is Misha the penguin who, apparently, has been diagnosed with depression, has heart trouble caused by being too long in the wrong climate, and is clearly lonely for the company of other penguins.

It’s the presence of Misha, usually to be found staring mournfully at Viktor, that gives Death and the Penguin more emotional power than one might at first credit it with. This is an accomplished, bleakly funny story of a man in an increasingly absurd world, but with a heartbroken penguin at its centre it is also something more.


(Image stolen shamelessly from here.)

2 Comments to “Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin

  1. Brilliant, right? That Misha had me in a fuzz of semi-depression and affection for weeks.

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