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Death and the Penguin (Panther) Kindle Edition
This strange, thoughtful and gentle novel will leave the reader satisfied and perplexed at its conclusion. Kurkov seems to question whether Victor or the Penguin is lonelier and more out of place in his environment. The Death in the title is ever present, though not in an oppressive way, but this also makes one want to question Victor's belief that a long hard life is better than a quick death. Many comparisons will undoubtedly be made between Kurkov's novel and the writing of other authors from the former Soviet republics to make it to print in the United Kingdom. Certainly it's fair to say that this belongs to the tradition of Russian satire made well known in this country by writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Venedikt Yarofeev. It is also interesting to read this alongside the works of contemporaries such as Evgenev Popov and Viktor Pelevin. However, where Pelevin drifts off into the fantastical and esoteric, Kurkov keeps it deadpan and very real. It is important to remember that many of the strange events that occur in this book are grounded in fact: amals really were given away by Kiev zoo--truth is often stranger than fiction. --Iain Robinson--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
Martin Booth, Daily Telegraph
- ASIN : B0050OLHBW
- Publisher : Vintage Digital; New Ed edition (1 Jun. 2011)
- Language : English
- File size : 2438 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 242 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: 13,213 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Viktor is initially delighted to be given what seems like a well-played sinecure writing “obelisks” or obituaries of influential people for a newspaper, until the realisation dawns that he is somehow implicated in the premature demise of the subjects involved. In a modern take on Kafka, he is not quite clear about the nature of the crime to which he is turning a blind eye, but grasps that if ever it is explained to him, it will mean that he too has become dispensable and his own life will be on the line. The fact that, as a reader, one feels frustrated and a bit wanting in not fully understanding what is going on only adds to the surreal nature of the story.
It is not surprising that everyone seems to consume so much alcohol to deaden their feelings in this grim society. This provides one of the many examples of dark comedy, in which Sergey, the kindly district militiaman who becomes Viktor’s only true human friend, assures a drunken angler that he is “seeing things” when Misha the penguin pops up out of the ice hole in which he is fishing: “Perhaps he’ll ease off the drink a bit” he quips, unable to give up policing people’s habits even when off duty, and somewhat hypocritically since he too knocks back large amounts of cognac.
The Ukraine is portrayed as a country in which ambulance drivers have to be bribed to take a sick man to hospital where there is a lack of medicine to treat him anyway, and potatoes seem to be the staple diet, while wealthy criminals will pay $1000 to hire a penguin as a gimmick at the fashionable funeral of a contract killing victim featured in one of Viktor’s obituaries – the irony is endless.
The author does not judge Ukrainians who have been driven to a pragmatic acceptance of corruption, but describes the lonely penguin, by nature a creature evolved to work in a supportive community, as a metaphor for people living in a post-communist society who suddenly find themselves cut adrift from a mutually supportive community, and alone in a world with new, unfamiliar rules of life.
Having written the novel in 1996, Kurkov has been only temporarily gratified and ultimately depressed to find his art imitated by life in the recent moral and political chaos of the Ukraine. With first-hand experience of artistic friends liquidated by contract killers, one hopes that this perceptive writer will be safe.
The dramatic climax of this book seems unduly rushed and the ending abrupt, but also quite neat, leaving at least one striking loose end but paving the way for a sequel, or two.
Through his new job, Viktor gains new friends. Misha-non-penguin who commissions a private obelisk for a colleague, Sergey the militiaman who looks after Misha the penguin when Viktor has to check out obelisk candidates in Kharkiv, Sonya, Misha-non-penguin's daughter who comes to live with Viktor when her father has to conveniently disappear, and Nina, Sergey's niece who acts as Sonya's live-in nanny. Quite the happy family – except that Misha-non-penguin's disappearance hints that all is not as it seems in the wider world. “An odd country, an odd life which he had no desire to make sense of. To endure, full stop, that was all he wanted.”
Like so many East Europeans, quiet acceptance in the face of this oddness makes life tolerable, and Viktor's little family enjoy a placid, untroubled life. The men take Sonya and the penguin ice-fishing in the Dnieper river (it's somehow refreshing to see the places headlined so grimly today in their ordinary colours), where a stunned drinker asks Sergey “is that a penguin or am I seeing things ?” - “You're seeing things” the militiaman replies. Mindful of his responsibilities as the local policeman, he tells Viktor “Now, perhaps he'll ease off the drink a bit.”
Ukraine being the unsettled borderland that it is, things don't last. Eventually, the political, military, commercial and diplomatic subjects of Viktor's obelisks begin to meet their ends and – for no obvious reason – Viktor and the penguin are invited to a series of funerals by an insistent mourner. When Viktor finally cries off, he's told to send the penguin on its own.
Suspicions beginning to rise, Viktor recalls uncomfortably that when he had first asked his editor why he was being asked for so many obelisks, the reply was “the moment you're told what the point of your work is, you're dead.” No matter, Viktor's philosophy is that when the terrible becomes commonplace “people accepted it as the norm, and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated.” His way of life isn't defeatist, anything but - “Let's drink to not being worse off. We have known better days.” So the story winds up: if it's not a wholly happy ending, it's somehow a satisfying one. And the whole story is an important reminder that there was quite recently – and surely will be again – a day to day life in Kyiv that was quietly enjoyable.
(This review originally appeared in the Chesil Magazine, Dorset)
I saw there is a sequel, but I don't expect to be buying it.
This is a clever book, but not everyone will get its cleverness - probably good reading club material though.