Death and the Penguin

A familiar melancholy pervades Andrey Kurkov’s astonishing novel Death and the Penguin.  It is the ingrained sadness of the alienated, powerless man, the perennial hero of so much Russian and Eastern European fiction.  We meet Vicktor Zolotaryov, an unemployed writer living in Kiev, as he scuttles home, taunted by a couple of stone-throwing louts.  “They found life dull, ordinary people, now that entertainment was beyond their means,” Vicktor reflects, “So they bowled cobbles.”   Winter is approaching, and Kurkov’s depiction of Vicktor’s daily life is as bare and evocative as the silhouette of Kiev’s leafless trees.  “As he turned on the kitchen light, it went off again…. Unearthing a candle, he lit it and stood it on the table in an empty mayonnaise pot.”  

Vicktor is not entirely alone.  He lives with Misha, a king penguin he acquired “when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them.”  Instead of adopting a pet, however, Vicktor has landed himself with a soul mate, for Misha too seems lonely and both creatures are displaced, the penguin from the Antarctic and Vicktor from a past that disintegrated along with the Soviet Union.  Vicktor’s depression lifts, however, when a newspaper editor commissions him to write obituaries of living local dignitaries.  Then he notices that as soon as he finishes an “obelisk,” the subject tends to die.  “The less you know, the longer you live!” the editor tells him, although Vicktor hardly needs the advice.  In a society where organized crime and old-style corruption rule in tandem, not knowing is an essential survival skill.  

Kiev’s oddly scheduled deaths—part of a mysterious campaign to “clean up the country”—bring strangers to Vicktor’s door and strange gifts too:  money, cryptic messages, a gun.  Increasingly bewildered, Vicktor is also given a child, the daughter of a friend who must flee town.  “He’s gone,” Vicktor tells four-year-old Sonya, “You’re to live here,” an explanation that she, already wise, accepts.    “The seeming reality of everything was only a relic of childhood,” Vicktor realizes, and Kurkov persuades us of this even as he creates a world so tangibly real that its atmosphere of mild delirium infects our own.   

Avoiding the doldrums of magic realism and sentiment (neither Sonya the child nor Misha the penguin is remotely cute, yet both are deeply affecting), Kurkov smoothly accelerates the novel’s pace and heightens its tension as he allows Vicktor to apprehend larger pieces of the lethal puzzle surrounding him.  Events follow an obscure logic.  A militiaman friend moves to Moscow, and his niece becomes Sonya’s nanny and then Vicktor’s bedmate.  Vicktor and Misha are the only mourners at the funeral of the city’s penguin expert, and soon Vicktor is asked to rent Misha out as a novelty at Mafia-style funerals.  When the penguin becomes ill, Vicktor devises a plan to return him to the Antarctic, one that seems both absurd and entirely reasonable, like so much else in this profound yet whimsical novel.  Spring arrives, and in a suitably ironic twist the passive hero becomes a man of action heading south to the ice.