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.

I read to open up my world

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a book that you know from the start is going to be hard in terms of subject matter, but worth it. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and it was completely deserved.

There is a fairly long build-up before the horrors, a window into “normal” life in Nigeria following independence from Britain. I was charmed by the cast of characters – largely well-off middle-class people – and their lives that were familiar (jobs in universities, trade, journalism) and yet unfamiliar (different clothes, different foods, the politics of tribes and postcolonialism).

But this is ultimately a book about war. The dates are given and I know only a very little about Nigeria, it’s that they had a civil war in the late 1960s, a war that was brutal and involved genocide and other war crimes. So I knew this book was going to some dark places, but I let myself be lulled by the peacetime stories of love, family problems and – yes – politics.

At the centre of the book are twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Their father is a Big Man, a tribal chief by name, a successful international businessman by trade. The twins were raised in luxury in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, had an expensive education and travel to England often.

Beautiful Olanna is drawn by revolutionary ideals and moves to Nsukka to work at the university and be near her lover Odenigbo, a revolutionary who gathers like-minded people in his house every night to discuss social and political problems over dinner and brandy. Plain Kainene is ever-practical and takes over part of her father’s business to support herself. She can’t believe any man could really love the ugly sister, but Richard falls for her at first sight. He is an Englishman who came to Nigeria to study ancient pots and has fallen for the country and is frustrated that he can never be truly Nigerian, with his white skin and the advantages it confers.

The other central character is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Ugwu comes from a small village with very limited education but knows that being a house boy is his chance to prove himself worthy of the girl he likes back home. Odenigbo, unusual as he is, shows kindness to his servant and educates him, even gives him his own room and a bed to sleep in.

When war does come, its effect on their lives is gradual. Everyday life is still about love, friendship, trust and betrayal. As the war worsens/gets closer it gets gradually more central to the characters’ lives.

There is a sense, inevitably, that this is about how rich (or at least reasonably well-off city-dwelling) people are affected by war, which is not necessarily how poor country folk are affected, but Adichie does try to show through minor characters how different people experience both war and the build-up to war, and also how war, when it gets really bad, is a great leveller of rich and poor. When money is no longer worth anything, when everyone has fled their homes with a handful of clothes and little else, are rich people really any better off than anyone around them? Perhaps, in that they are more likely to know people – useful people who can things, messages, news. And even when money is supposedly worthless and there’s supposedly nothing to buy with it, there is always someone who can be bribed.

There is a surreal sequence at the height of the war when Richard goes to meet a pair of American journalists, to act as their guide and translator. Of necessity he takes them only to relatively safe places and feeds them decent food paid for by the government. They complain that it doesn’t seem that bad. Then Richard goes home to a place where even rice is a rare luxury, where children catch and roast lizards to fend off starvation.

The title, by the way, refers to the flag of the short-lived nation Biafra, the south-eastern region of Nigeria where all the main characters live. Their anthem was “Land of the Rising Sun” and their motto “Peace, Unity, Freedom” – which sadly never came. The region still suffers from ethnic and religious violence.

This book is brilliant and sad and warm and heartbreaking. It’s an important reminder of the best and worst of humanity. Thank you once again to Amy Reads for recommending it to me.

First published 2006 by Fourth Estate.

UPDATE: See also this review by Amy of Amy Reads. Plus you can listen to an episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to June 2009.