Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Translated by George Bird

Synopsis:

11125891Aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov leads a down-and-out life in poverty-and-violence-wracked Kiev—he’s out of work and his only friend is a penguin, Misha, that he rescued when the local zoo started getting rid of animals. Even more nerve-wracking: a local mobster has taken a shine to Misha and wants to keep borrowing him for events.

But Viktor thinks he’s finally caught a break when he lands a well-paying job at the Kiev newspaper writing “living obituaries” of local dignitaries—articles to be filed for use when the time comes.

The only thing is, it seems the time always comes as soon as Viktor writes the article. Slowly understanding that his own life may be in jeopardy, Viktor also realizes that the only thing that might be keeping him alive is his penguin.

Review:

Viktor is doing alright – his apartment is nothing special but he shares it with Misha, his penguin (long story). He just landed a job writing obits for famous people, so when they die there will be copy waiting and ready. The articles end up sitting in a drawer at the newspaper office but the money keeps Viktor in food and Misha in fish, so it can’t be all bad.

One day, however, an obit subject dies, having plummeted from a sixth story window. Then another, and another. Viktor is left to wonder what he got into, and if it’s even worth trying to find his way out.

I love this book – serious writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the “what the…” moments are tidbits that are just absurd enough to be plausible in post-Soviet Kiev. The plot hums along at a steady pace, helped along by short chapters that go down like potato chips, one after the other. There are some nice insights, too:

The cafe was empty and quiet – an ambience suitable for dreaming, or conversely, for recalling the past.

The characters are fleshed out wonderfully and feel like real people, right down to Misha the penguin. I love that there’s another man named Misha that gets referred to as Misha-non-penguin. It’s a little joke that isn’t overplayed, wonderful restraint that applies throughout the novel, even with all the crazy.

George Bird does a wonderful job translating from the Russian. I especially like how he handles the flowery obits, such as this one for an opera singer:

The voice is a sign of life. It may grow in strength, break off, be lost, sink to a barely audible whisper. In the chorus of our lives the individual voice is not easily distinguished, but where, suddenly, it falls silent, there comes an awareness of the finitude of any sound, of any life.

The book ends on a cliffhanger with several plot threads hanging but that’s the only bad thing I can say. I was transported to another world and look forward to seeing what happens.

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