Death and the Penguin – Review

Book: Death and the Penguin
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Year: 1996
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥

Death and the Penguin has a spot on my book list due to my resolve to read books from different countries. Set in Ukraine, this satirical and bleak novel revolves around the protagonist Viktor Zolotaryov and his profession, which, in a rather oblique way turns hazardous to himself.

A writer, whose short stories aren’t sensational enough, Viktor is offered a job by Capital News to write obituaries for $300 a month. On inquiring whose obelisks he has to write, he is told to pick from the still-living powerful and famous personalities of Ukraine. When his first obelisk is approved without any changes, Viktor finds himself joyous and he shares this with his pet penguin and only companion, Misha. However, as time passes by, he realizes that his dream of getting published will never be realized, until a senior politician unexpectedly dies after falling from a sixth-floor window. At night. This triggers a clan war of killings and Viktor find himself increasingly published. He is also visited by a person named Misha (referred to as non-penguin-Misha) giving him cryptic news on what’s “happening” and his Chief who calls him at times asking him to be safe or leave town for a while.

Death and the Penguin.jpgOccasionally alarmed by sudden appearances of parcels and notes through closed doors, and even people he’s never seen before, Viktor does what he can to stay out of trouble, which almost always skirts him. He tells himself that he has nothing to do with the deaths – he’s just writing. Non-penguin-Misha leaves his daughter Sonya in Viktor’s care while “goes away until everything settles”. Viktor works from home, files and money being couriered to him. One by one, he watches the people he had written about die, and his penguin exhibiting signs of depression. Soon after, Viktor is now expected to attend the funerals and wakes of the deceased with Misha. The appearance of the penguin rewards him with $1000 each time and, though hesitant, he is told calmly and firmly that he has to make these visits.

As the novel progresses, Viktor’s solitary life becomes a domestic one, his police officer friend takes him out of town on vacation, he meets a penguinologist who makes a bizarre request, and Misha falls ill and is required to undergo a heart transplant. The vet tells him the heart of a small child will do. After much deliberation and coming face to face with his own mortality, Viktor decided Misha should have the operation. Little information on how the heart is procured, but Viktor’s anonymous “friends” are happy to bear all costs for the recovery of the penguin, no matter what they may be.

Death and The Penguin is a taut novel about the post-Soviet Ukraine where organized crime is well masked, bribes must be paid before a dead man can be placed in a coffin, zoos are closing down, scientists are awaiting funding to go to Antarctica, and hospital staff do not have medicines to cure the ill.

While reading, I Googled the names of streets and the cities mentioned in the book. It also helped that the chapters are very small and the story progresses quickly. While most of it is indoors in an apartment in Kiev where Viktor lives with Misha, and his domestic life consists of feeding him fish; some of it is in a dacha, on Kreschatik Street, along the river Dnieper, and even in Odessa. It’s interesting to see how the media feeds organized crime in ways that we have known. It is said that after numerous publishers had rejected his book, Kurkov self-published it and personally handed them out on streets for people to read them. That’s the dedication of a writer. The climax comes out of nowhere and startles one. I, for one, chuckled at it.

This is quite a read to pick up and easy to read and finish. It not only provides a peek hole into Ukraine, but also shows how a writer can put so many disparate things together and still connect them.



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