_Book Review: "Death and the Penguin" (Andrey Kurkov, Vinate Books, 2003; Translated by George Bird)_
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A truly unusual book this, and one that I am delighted to be able to review.
Death and the Penguin was originally written in Russian, and was published in its native language in 1996. The English translation was published last year, and I'm sorry that it took me this long to find it.
I picked the book up at my local bookstore on a whim. I had never heard of it until I walked into the store, but the cover design caught my eye (it features a pengin and a mafioso sitting in a bath).
The story is set in modern day Kiev, amid the poverty and hardship of the post-Soviet era, and the picture painted by the book is one of bleak landscapes and depressing loneliness - certainly not a great travel advertisment for the city. The lead character is a writer named Viktor who starts the story unemployed. The book begins with him in his apartment, in the company of his pet penguin, Misha, writing a story by candlelight. We don't get to find out what his story was like, but it quickly leads to him getting an unlikely job writing pre-emptive obituaries for a local newspaper. And thus the somewhat quirky title of the book is explained.
But when the people he has written about start dying, he finds himself spiraling into a shadowy underworld surrounded by suspicious characters and dead dignitaries.
'Black comedy' and 'tragi-comic' are two of the phrases used to describe this book in the quotes on the jacket, but it is much more subtle than that. There is very little in the book that is overtly funny, but the writing is utterly engaging, and the reader will find himself completely inside the head of the protagonist. The other characters all seem somewhat distant, which is exactly how Viktor perceives them; he makes several friends and acquaintances throughout the book, but never really gets close emotionally to any of them. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness is portrayed vividly, even when he has company, but with a wistful dignity that draws the reader in.
The book also does a fantastic job of describing post-Soviet Kiev. The icy winters, and the drab grey landscape make a perfect backdrop for Viktor, with his penguin and his obituaries.
In my opinion, Death and the Penguin is a work of rare talent; even genius. The inventiveness of the story - and especially the penguin - is brilliant, as is the way events manage to go from slightly odd to completely surreal while retaining an air of seeming everyday normality. But it is the way the characters are brought to life that marks it out from the crowd. Kurkov achieves all this with ease, and as the story evolves and events spiral toward their conclusion, the lead character's slightly detatched outlook on life remains the one constant throughout. Along with the penguin, of course.
"Death and the Penguin" is available in good bookstores.
The publisher can be found online at www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage
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