Written in Russian back in 1996 (and then translated to English in 2001) Death and The Penguin isn’t the sort of book that I’d normally pick up. This copy only came into my hands as my mum had received it as part of a book subscription and she passed it on to me when she’d read it. The brief synopsis she gave me was that it was about a journalist living in Kiev with his pet penguin Misha, who he took home when the zoo closed down. Those few words were enough to intrigue me and make me read the book for myself.
Death and The Penguin is what can only be described as a bit of a surreal book. Just the fact that it features a man who lives with his pet penguin in a city tells you that much already. With Ukraine having declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the book is set in a country that is obviously in a bit of a mess. There are local Militia men, bribes for people to get hospital treatment, power cuts and suspicious hushed up deaths a plenty. Lead character Viktor is a frustrated writer. Living in an apartment with his penguin Misha and generally minding his own business. He’s trying to get writing work at various newspapers, but his attempts come to nothing, until he receives a phone call from the Editor in Chief of Capital News.
Before he quite knows where he is Viktor is employed to anonymously write obituaries for the country’s VIPs. The only thing is that none of them are actually dead. This is more a bit of preparation work for when they die. As obviously everyone dies eventually.
The book seems to flit between the mundane life around Viktor’s day job and life in post-Soviet Ukraine at the time, and then a variety of bizarre things that seem to happen in his life. Living with a penguin is random enough, but then being paid to attend funerals and wakes with said penguin is weirder still.
Confusion and meaning
I finished Death and The Penguin feeling rather confused. I don’t want to give away any spoilers here, but being utterly baffled at what had happened I did then go online to try to find some answers to penguin related questions that I had. This article from The Guardian helped explain things somewhat, especially the final three paragraphs where the author’s own words are used to clarify a few things.
I’m sure many of us know so much more now about what current life in Ukraine is like, but at the same time understanding what it was like there when Death and The Penguin was written might help us understand the journey that the country has been on too. I generally consider myself relatively well travelled and well read, but this was my first read that had been set in Ukraine. Years ago I remember enjoying A short history about tractors in Ukrainian and reading Death and The Penguin has got me thinking that it might be time to re-read about Ukranian tractors, and also expand my reading further into more translated texts. Kurkov himself has written a sequel to this book called Penguin Lost and that’s definitely top of my list. Just as soon as the To Be Read pile in my bedroom is reduced a bit!
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