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.