Translated from Russian by George Bird
First published: 1996 (English translation Harvill ed 2002)
My copy: bought secondhand in paperback
Memorable quote: “Something was wrong with his life, he thought, walking with downcast eyes. Or life itself had changed, and was as it used to be – simple, comprehensible – only on the outside. Inside, it was as if the mechanism was broken, and now there was no knowing what to expect of a familiar object – be it a loaf of Ukrainian bread or a street pay telephone. Beneath every surface, inside every tree, every person lurked an invisible alien something. The seeming reality of everything was only a relic of childhood.”
Some titles are truly irresistible! When I spotted this slim volume on the shelves of my (rather brilliant) local charity shop I simply had to pick it up. And the deadpan drama that followed did not disappoint. Both melancholy and absurd, the novel tells the story of Victor, a lonely writer living amidst the slump in post-Soviet Ukraine. Though he is unable to find a publisher for his short stories he makes a living composing “Obelisks,” obituaries for key figures in Kiev society – particularly those with criminal connections. At first these “notables” remain stalwartly alive, denying him the satisfaction of seeing his work in print. But when the publications start to come Victor finds himself caught in a dangerous game of intrigue and suspicion, one which – rather like Nick in A.D Miller’s Moscow-set Snowdrops – he initially does not understand and later strives hard to disbelieve.
But while Snowdrops remains tautly psychological, Death and the Penguin takes a brilliant turn for the blackly comic. Victor may be the novel’s protagonist but its star – and the key ingredient in Kurkov’s overall tone of dark farce – is undoubtedly Misha, the penguin of the title, who is not a metaphor but a real live animal adopted from a zoo that could no longer afford to feed him. Misha is a fantastic character: silent, permanently tuxedoed and somewhat depressed, he brings a certain gravitas to every scene in which he appears, and compared with the casually brutal associations of Victor’s work, his interactions with his unusual pet are consistently touching. The melancholy nature of this novel does not prevent it being hugely entertaining, even laugh-out-loud funny in places, although the overall message is a serious one. Kurkov encourages us to ask who is more lonely: Misha, isolated from his own kind and thousands of miles from the Antarctic homeland he has never known, or Victor and his compatriots struggling to find structure and meaning in their lives after the collapse of the former regime. Sparse, sad, humorous, uniquely memorable and with an ending that managed at once to confound and to satisfy, this is truly a gem of a novel.