Monday, June 1, 2015
Death and the Penguin is an odd tale, told well. Viktor, like everyone else in post-Soviet Kiev, is doing what he can and must to keep going on. Viktor owns little more than a typewriter, but when the local zoo, low on funds, has to get rid of animals, Viktor and Misha become roommates. Misha is a penguin.
Misha is not an overly cute or anthropomorphized penguin. He doesn't solve crimes or engage in witty dialog. In Antarctica he'd be perfectly normal, he's odd only because he is living in an apartment in Kiev. Responsible for Misha's well-being, Viktor turned from failed novel writing to something shorter that the local paper might publish, something that might make a bit of money, at least enough to buy fish for Misha.
Viktor's writing gambit is successful when it leads to some steady work, he's given the job of writing obelisks, obituaries of people of varying degrees of prominence. These people aren't dead yet, Viktor's work is for the files, for use at a later date. But when those people start dying shortly with a disturbing frequency, Viktor begins to wonder if he's writing obelisks or death warrants. More questions arise when a local mobster, also named Misha, decides that a penguin is an ideal guest for a funeral.
Andrey Kurkov tells his tale quickly, with short chapters and spare, almost poetic prose. The mystery is far more than a simple who-done-it, this is a world where Viktor's editor explains "your interest lies in not asking questions." He adds "The full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required."
Like Viktor, the reader spends most of Death and the Penguin wondering what the hell is going on. Like life itself, the big question of "why?" must be asked.
I try in my reviews not to tell too much, the telling is the job of the book and my job is to tell you if the book is worthwhile. I will say only this, the ending of Death and the Penguin is pretty much perfect and the book is a complete little gem.
There is a sequel, Penquin Lost, and it's just as good as the first. Where Death and the Penguin takes place entirely in Kiev, Penquin Lost occupies a larger stage and the big question is not so much "why?" as "how?" In Death and the Penguin, we want Viktor to know. In Penquin Lost, we want him to win.
Kurkov's Penguin books provide a fascinating look at what remains when much is taken away. They are absurd but so is life and at the core they are true and good. When the zoo goes broke, you take the penguin home. Because you can, because you must. In the end, saving the penguin saves the man.