Given a pen instead of a gun

Penguin Lost
by Andrey Kurkov
translated from Russian by George Bird

When I began this book, the sequel to Death and the Penguin, I was mostly a little lost and puzzled. I ended it engrossed and near tears (happy-sad ones). Which is a pretty good review in itself, I think.

To explain the plot I’m going to have to discuss how book one ended, so big fat **SPOILER ALERT STARTS HERE**

We last saw Victor travelling to Antarctica in the place of his pet penguin Misha, whom he left in a hospital in Kiev with his treatment being paid for by dodgy types who were almost certainly mafia. In this book, Victor arrives back in Kiev to find that Misha has disappeared, Victor’s sort-of foster daughter Sonya has got a pet cat, appearing to have forgotten Misha already, and Nina (Sonya’s nanny) has moved her new boyfriend into Victor’s flat. Alone, dispirited and possibly still on the wrong side of the mafia, Victor is in a dark place and only too happy to get taken under the wing of increasingly questionable types in his search for Misha the penguin.

**END SPOILERS**

In the early parts of this book, former journalist Victor is working for a local politician who initially appears pretty dodgy and certainly has some dodgy contacts. I found this a little dull, perhaps because I was missing some of the nuances of Ukrainian politics. Or perhaps it was Victor’s semi-defeated demeanour. When he started to get his confidence back, I started to be interested. He appears to have a knack for persuading people to help in his unusual quest (finding his pet penguin, if you didn’t get that from the title), though it’s certainly not an easy adventure.

Although book one did deal with politics, mafia and death, they were in the background behind the story of a man and his attempts to pull his life together. In this story Soviet politics become far more prominent, as Victor travels from Ukraine to Russia to Chechnya, the latter embroiled in war and a dangerous place for a Russian-speaker to be. The story gets pretty dark, very dark in fact. And there is less of the black humour of Death and the Penguin, though it is still there. But what it does have plenty of is the same compelling weirdness. I also learned a lot about Ukraine in the 1990s:

“Maybe I’ll be a journalist when I’m big. And sit up in the kitchen when everyone’s asleep.”
“You mustn’t – you wouldn’t want to be a soldier and go to war.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“You’d have to, as a journalist. You’d be taken on by some paper, given a pen instead of a gun, and told, ‘There’s the enemy, you go and write nasty things about him.’ And you would, until you got killed or hurt.”

Victor isn’t a positive thinker, perhaps understandably, but this gives him some interesting internal monologues:

“He stared at the white sheet of paper, but his brain refused to function. It was becoming internal, this weightlessness, prior to becoming external again, and beginning to irritate. At long last, he did actually type the words ‘What now?’ and felt better for it. Materialized, turned into text, the question ceased to occupy his thoughts.”

A note on the translation: my early disinterest aside, I felt that Bird did a good job of explaining the nuances of travel and interaction between the Soviet states. And I really felt the cold, bleak atmosphere exemplified by the image of a penguin on the balcony of a high-rise flat overlooking a car park.

Zakon uliki first published 2002 by Folio, Kharkov.
This translation published 2004 by the Harvill Press.

A Switzerland of the soul blanketed in snows of peace

Death and the Penguin
by Andrey Kurkov
translated from Russian by George Bird

I first read this maybe six years ago, I think for a previous book group, so it’s odd that I remembered so little of it. I think I remember it being funnier. Or maybe I used to be more receptive to super dry, dark humour? I mean, I still think it’s a very good book.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, aspiring writer Viktor lives in a city tower block with his penguin Misha. Not exactly a pet, Viktor took in Misha when the Kiev city zoo starting giving away animals that it could not afford to keep. They have a sweet, bizarrely realistic co-existence. Misha shows occasional curiosity and less occasional affection for Viktor, but mostly stands stoically in the coldest corner he can find, staring into space. Viktor, despite being given every opportunity over the course of this story, is close to no-one and seems happy enough with that, in an apathetic sort of way.

Not that you can blame him for keeping his distance once the story gets started. There’s a reason for that “death” in the title. Viktor is hired by a newspaper editor to write obituaries of prominent persons who are still living. Which seems harmless enough. But facts in these people’s files and a few untimely deaths lead him to realise that all is not as it seems. At the very least, warring factions of the local mafia are very very active. And warlike. Viktor’s life is almost certainly in danger and it may or may not be a good thing that some powerful people have taken a liking to his penguin.

Most of the humour, as you can perhaps tell from the above summary, comes from the surreal situations, especially those created by the presence of a penguin. And it’s hard not to smile at the image of a penguin. Kurkov’s manner of phrasing is unusual and yet familiar, for instance: “Progress was terribly slow. Words refused to deploy in battle formation, sentences scattered, only to be slaughtered by irritable x’s and reformed.” Isn’t that lovely?

It’s also a pretty dark book. In a bleak, run-down sort of way. Here’s Viktor pondering his obituaries:
“The pure and sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn’t easy to remain entirely honest and upright. Today’s battles were all for material gain anyway. The crazy idealist was extinct – survived by the crazy pragmatist.”

The darkness of mood and subject matter mean that the occasional poetic phrase stands out as a beautiful, rare thing. Which is not to say that the majority of the book is not well written, but it is for the most part written in a matter of fact tone appropriate to its main character. For a writer, Viktor is not a romantic. Not most of the time, anyway:
“He suddenly had the sensation of being abroad, out of reach of yesterday’s existence. This abroad was a place of tranquillity, a Switzerland of the soul blanketed in snows of peace, permeated with a dread of causing disturbance; where no bird sang or called, as if out of no desire to.”
(Yes, even the poetic bits are downbeat.)

I was glad to find that I still liked this book, even if I had mis-remembered it a little, and I’m now looking forward to reading the other Kurkov books I have in my TBR.

First published as Smert’postoronnego in 1996 by the Alterpress, Kiev.
This translation first published 2001 by the Harvill Press.