I was given the opportunity to read Death and the Penguin by Melville House Publishing (thank you!), who offered me an eBook. Reading about this book had me hooked from the first couple of sentences – set in Kiev, Ukraine, this book is about Vik who falls into a mysterious job of writing obituaries from home in the company of his penguin, Misha. Although Kurkov is Ukrainian, the book is translated from the Russian (I can hear my ancestors complaining about this!) but has studied many languages, working as a prison warder before turning to writing. According to Goodreads, he has a hobby of collecting cacti.
Does that sound odd? Not to me, I find the former Soviet bloc countries and their people fascinating – so many juxtapositions between the old and new, irony and enthusiasm. If the above sounds plausible to you, you’ll enjoy Death and the Penguin. This was the first Ukrainian fiction book I’ve read and I’ll certainly read more of Kurkov’s works. Eastern European literature is much more than just War and Peace! (Which coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about reading of late).
My first worry, that the prose would be difficult to understand after the translation of Russian to English was unfounded. This was based on my grandfather’s translation of jokes from Ukrainian to English – often falling very flat. No problems with this book though, George Bird has translated this book perfectly. The subtle irony and humour have made a successful translation to English, including the joke on the first page.
Now that I’ve told you that this book works well, what is it actually about? Our protagonist is Viktor, a single man living in a Kiev apartment with the penguin he took from the zoo last year when they were reducing their animal numbers. (Was this common post-Soviet times?) Viktor tries to write short stories, unsuccessfully in between feeding Misha the penguin and being lonely. Then Viktor is offered the opportunity to write obituaries – for people who are not yet dead. He takes to this task with fervour, but then odd things start to happen…he meets Misha-non-penguin and his daughter, Sonya (eventually taking over her care when Misha goes missing) and Misha (penguin) is asked to attend funerals for money. Viktor’s obituary topics keep turning up dead and things keep appearing in his kitchen table, even though the door is locked – from the inside. While all this happens, Viktor gets a girlfriend, friends and a surrogate daughter.
This is brilliantly, subtly written. The crime tends to take place in the background and the characters seem to accept some of these things as ‘normal’ (e.g. gunshots, having to ‘go to ground’) – which perhaps was more likely in the Ukraine of the 1990s. Organised crime and political problems seem to be rampant in this book. The characters are quite likeable with all their quirks, and Misha the penguin is written brilliantly – he is a character, rather than just a quirky type of pet. Cognac and vodka also feature quite prominently as well as the weather, which seems to range from freezing to just plain cold. Kurkov has the ability to weave all the drama into Viktor’s everyday life and make it seem – almost normal. So we know that when Viktor starts to get worried, it’s time for us to be really worried. The ending is quite emotional (and unexpected to me), but I hear that there’s a sequel which I must try to hunt down…
Read this if: you like your comedy blackest of black.
8.5 out of 10.