Saturday, November 5, 2016

Andrey Kurkov: Death and the Penguin, a novel

Andrey Kurkov
Death and the Penguin

A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin.

'Take him to the zoo,' he orders.

Some time later the same major is driving along when he sees the militiaman still with the penguin.

'What have you been doing?' he asks.  'I said take him to the zoo.'

'We've been to the zoo, Comrade Major,' says the militiaman, 'and the circus.  And now we're going to the pictures.'"

This quotation begins the novel by Andrey Kurkov, titled Death and the Penguin.  Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer born in 1961.  This novel was published in 1996,  after Ukraine gained its freedom from the USSR.

The penguin is real.  Its name is Misha.  The main character is Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov, a Ukrainian writer living in Kiev, Ukraine.  He's not very successful, unfortunately.    About a year before the story begins, his girlfriend had left him and he was lonely.  He heard that the local zoo was giving away animals because they couldn't afford to feed them.  He went to the zoo and came home with a king penguin.

Now, he has just been offered a job as an obituarist for a newspaper.  An obituarist is one who writes obituaries for living people.  At first he simply reads the papers and selects those who appear regularly in news articles and the gossip columns.  Shortly afterwords, his editor hands him a list of his next subjects, and soon he doesn't have time to select those he will write about.  But, it really makes no difference to him.

Then something strange happens.  Suddenly, his obituaries become needed shortly after he writes them.  His subjects are dying, unexpectedly, most violently.  Is there any connection? 

Well,  Viktor  seems to be involved in a way in some criminal activity, but it's in a very peripheral way.  He prefers to remain ignorant of what might be going on behind the lists he gets from his editor. He's just doing his job.   But the real world keeps impinging on his attempts to remain in the background.

The back cover blurb calls it  "A masterful tale set in post-Soviet Kiev that's both darkly funny and ominous."   I would add quirky to that description.

There is a sequel, Penguin Lost,  which picks up shortly after the events of Death and the Penguin. I will read that for the further adventures of Misha the Penguin.


  1. very well summed up, Fred... i just read this last week and was bemused by it... it was humorous in a kind of Kafkaesque, Edward Goreyish way, and it lulled me a little bit... the family he accrues is touching, but the ending obviates that, i felt... dunnow if i'll read the sequel; while mildly interesting, i wasn't overwhelmed...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I have read the sequel, and I thought it wasn't as good as the first in the series.

  2. This does sound interesting. I would like to read more Eastern Eoropran fiction,

    1. Mel u,

      The same for me. I know so little about Eastern European lit and have read almost nothing.

  3. I tend to like absurd humor if it does not go too far overboard. Quirky is also good with me.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      Then, I think you should give this one at least glance. I would say it's far from being overboard.

  4. Please tell me that the penguin does not speak. When animals start talking in a story, I start thinking about throwing the book across the room. I can think of few exceptions to the rule.

    1. R.T.,

      Fear not. The penguin is a real penguin, through and through. It does nothing impossible for a penguin.

      I agree that talking animals do not belong in stories set in the everyday world, whereas in SF and fantasy, I find them quite acceptable.

  5. Okay, I am intrigued. I think I've heard of this book or at least, the penguin part of it somewhere, somehow. So now, Fred, you've reawakened my interest.

    I don't mind talking animals at all IF the writer believes it and is good enough, then I'll believe it too.

    1. Yvette,

      It's a bit on the strange side for the main character Viktor is a bit on the passive side. Things happen to him, if you know what I mean.

      If you do read it, I would be interested in your thoughts about it.