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.


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.