Death and the Penguin

Death and the Penguin


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A masterful tale set in post-Soviet Kiev that's both darkly-funny and ominous...

In the widely hailed prequel to Penguin Lost, aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov leads a down-and-out life in poverty-and-violence-wracked Kiev—he’s out of work and his only friend is a penguin, Misha, that he rescued when the local zoo started getting rid of animals. Even more nerve-wracking: a local mobster has taken a shine to Misha and wants to keep borrowing him for events.

But Viktor thinks he’s finally caught a break when he lands a well-paying job at the Kiev newspaper writing “living obituaries” of local dignitaries—articles to be filed for use when the time comes.

The only thing is, it seems the time always comes as soon as Viktor writes the article. Slowly understanding that his own life may be in jeopardy, Viktor also realizes that the only thing that might be keeping him alive is his penguin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935554554
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 06/07/2011
Series: Melville International Crime Series
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 540,732
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

Andrey Kurkov, born in St. Petersburg in 1961, now lives in Kiev. Having graduated from the Kiev Foreign Languages Institute, he worked for some time as a journalist, did his military service as a prison warder at Odessa, then became a film cameraman, writer of screenplays, and author of critically acclaimed and popular novels. He is the author of Penguin Lost, a sequel to Death and the Penguin, and The Case of the General's Thumb.

George Bird
has translated extensively from German and Russian. In 1986 he won the Pluto Crime Prize for his novel Death in Leningrad.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


First, a stone landed a metre from Viktor's foot. He glanced back. Two louts stood grinning, one of whom stooped, picked up another from a section of broken cobble, and bowled it at him skittler-fashion. Viktor made off at something approaching a racing walk and rounded the corner, telling himself the main thing was not to run. He paused outside his block, glancing up at the hanging clock: 9.00. Not a sound. No one about. He went in, now no longer afraid. They found life dull, ordinary people, now that entertainment was beyond their means. So they bowled cobbles.

    As he turned on the kitchen light, it went off again. They had cut the power, just like that. And in the darkness he became aware of the unhurried footfalls of Misha the penguin.

    Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a King Penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.

    Unearthing a candle, he lit it and stood it on the table in an empty mayonnaise pot. The poetic insouciance of the tiny light sent him to look, in the semi-darkness, for pen and paper. He sat down at the table with the paper between him and the candle; paper asking to be written on. Had he been a poet, rhyme would have raced across the white. But he wasn't. He was trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose. Short stories were the best he could do. Very short, too short to make a living from, even if he got paid for them.

    A shot rang out.

    Darting to the window, Viktor pressed his face to the glass. Nothing. He returned to his sheet of paper. Already he had thought up a story around that shot. A single side was all it took; no more, no less. And as his latest short short story drew to its tragic close, the power came back on and the ceiling bulb blazed. Blowing out the candle, he fetched coley from the freezer for Misha's bowl.


Next morning, when he had typed his latest short short story and taken leave of Misha, Viktor set off for the offices of a new fat newspaper that generously published anything, from a cooking recipe to a review of post-Soviet theatre. He knew the Editor, having occasionally drunk with him, and been driven home by his driver afterwards.

    The Editor received him with a smile and a slap on the shoulder, told his secretary to make coffee, and there and then gave Viktor's offering a professional read.

    "No, old friend," he said eventually. "Don't take it amiss, but it's no go. Needs a spot more gore, or a kinky love angle. Get it into your head that sensation's the essence of a newspaper short story."

    Viktor left, without waiting for coffee.

    A short step away were the offices of Capital News, where, lacking editorial access, he looked in on the Arts section.

    "Literature's not actually what we publish," the elderly Assistant Editor informed him amiably. "But leave it with me. Anything's possible. It might get in on a Friday. You know — for balance. If there's a glut of bad news, readers look for something neutral. I'll read it."

    Ridding himself of Viktor by handing him his card, the little old man returned to his paper-piled desk. At which point it dawned on Viktor that he had not actually been asked in. The whole exchange had been conducted in the doorway.


Two days later the phone rang.

    "Capital News. Sorry to trouble you," said a crisp, clear female voice. "I have the Editor-in-Chief on the line."

    The receiver changed hands.

    "Viktor Alekseyevich?" a man's voice enquired. "Couldn't pop in today, could you? Or are you busy?"

    "No," said Viktor.

    "I'll send a car. Blue Zhiguli. Just let me have your address."

    Viktor did, and with a "Bye, then," the Editor-in-Chief rang off without giving his name.

    Selecting a shirt from the wardrobe, Viktor wondered if it was to do with his story. Hardly ... What was his story to them? Still, what the hell!

    The driver of the blue Zhiguli parked at the entrance was deferential. He it was who conducted Viktor to the Editor-in-Chief.

    "I'm Igor Lvovich," he said, extending a hand. "Glad to meet you."

    He looked more like an aged athlete than a man of the Press. And maybe that's how it was, except that his eyes betrayed a hint of irony born more of intellect and education than lengthy sessions in a gym.

    "Have a seat. Spot of cognac?" He accompanied these words with a lordly wave of the hand.

    "I'd prefer coffee, if I may," said Viktor, settling into a leather armchair facing the vast executive desk.

    "Two coffees," the Editor-in-Chief said picking up the phone. "Do you know," he resumed amiably, "we'd only recently been talking about you, and yesterday in came our Assistant Arts Editor, Boris Leonardovich, with your little story. 'Get an eyeful of this,' said he. I did, and it's good. And then it came to me why we'd been talking about you, and I thought we should meet."

    Viktor nodded politely. Igor Lvovich paused and smiled.

    "Viktor Alekseyevich," he resumed, "how about working for us?"

    "Writing what?" asked Viktor, secretly alarmed at the prospect of a fresh spell of journalistic hard labour.

    Igor Lvovich was on the point of explaining when the secretary came in with their coffee and a bowl of sugar on a tray, and he held his breath until she had gone.

    "This is highly confidential," he said. "What we're after is a gifted obituarist, master of the succinct. Snappy, pithy, way-out stuff's the idea. You with me?" He looked hopefully at Viktor.

    "Sit in an office, you mean, and wait for deaths?" Viktor asked warily, as if fearing to hear as much confirmed.

    "No, of course not! Far more interesting and responsible than that! What you'd have to do is create, from scratch, an index of obelisk jobs — as we call obituaries — to include deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene — that sort of person — while they're still alive. But what I want is the dead written about as they've never been written about before. And your story tells me you're the man."

    "What about payment?"

    "You'd start at $300. Hours up to you. But keeping me informed, of course, who we've got carded. So we don't get caught on the hop by some car crash out of the blue! Oh, and one other condition: you'll need a pseudonym. In your own interest as much as anything."

    "But what?" said Viktor, half to himself.

    "Think of one. But if you can't, make it A Group of Friends for the time being."

    Viktor nodded.


Before bed, he drank tea, and gave not over-serious thought to the subject of death. His mood was of the best, a mood more for vodka than tea. Except that there wasn't any vodka.

    What an offer! And though still in the dark concerning his new duties, he had a foretaste of something new and unusual. But roaming the dark corridor, banging every so often against the closed kitchen door, was Misha the penguin. Overcome at last with a feeling of guilt, Viktor let him in. Misha paused at the table, using his almost one metre of height to see what was on it. He looked at the cup of tea, then shifting his gaze to Viktor, considered him with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise Party functionary. Thinking he would like to give Misha a treat, Viktor went and turned on the cold tap in the bathroom. At the sound of running water Misha came plip-plopping and, without waiting for the bath to fill, leaned over and tumbled in.

    The next morning, Viktor looked in at Capital News for some practical tips from the Editor-in-Chief.

    "How," he asked, "do we select our notables?"

    "Nothing easier! See who the papers write about and take your pick. Not all our country's notables are known to it, you see. Many prefer it like that ..."

    That evening Viktor bought all the papers, went home and settled down at the kitchen table.

    The very first he looked at gave him food for thought, and the VIP names he underlined he then copied into a notebook for action. He would not be short of work — there were 60 or so names from the first few papers alone!

    Then tea, and fresh thought, this time concerning the obelisk proper. Already he thought he saw how it might be vitalized, and at the same time, sentimentalized, so that even the simple collective farmer, never having known the late whoever-it-was he was reading about, would brush away a tear. By next morning Viktor had earmarked a possible first obelisk. It only remained to get the Chief's blessing.


At 9.30 next morning, having got the Chief's blessing, drunk coffee, and been solemnly presented with his Press card, Viktor bought a bottle of Finlandia at a kiosk, and set off for the office of sometime author, now State Duma Deputy, Aleksandr Yakornitsky.

    Hearing that a correspondent of Capital News wished to see him, the State Deputy was delighted, and immediately told his secretary to cancel all his remaining appointments and admit no one else.

    Comfortably ensconced, Viktor put on the table the bottle of Finnish vodka and a dictaphone. Equally promptly, the State Deputy produced two small crystal glasses, placing one either side of the bottle.

    He talked freely, without waiting for questions — of his work, his childhood, his time as Komsomol organizer of his university year. As they finished the bottle, he was boasting of his trips to Chernobyl. These, it appeared, had the added bonus of enhancing his potency — as, in case of any doubt, his private-school teacher wife and National Opera diva mistress would testify.

    Taking leave of each other, they embraced. Viktor was left with the impression of an author-State-Deputy of great and, for obituary purposes, perhaps undue, vitality. But that was it! Inasmuch as the departed had lately been alive, an obituary should retain their passing warmth — not be all hopeless gloom!

    Back at his flat, Viktor wrote the obituary, swiftly obelisking the State Deputy in a warm, two-page account of the vital and the sinful, and without recourse to the dictaphone, so fresh was his memory.

    "Wonderful job!" Igor Lvovich enthused the next morning. "Provided singer's hubby keeps his mouth shut ... Many women may be mourning him today, but with them in mind, it is to his wife that we shall extend our sympathy; and to one other lady, whose voice, heard by all soaring to the dome of the National Opera, was for him. Beautiful! Keep it up! On with the good work!"

    "Igor Lvovich," began Viktor, growing bolder, "I'm a bit short on facts, and to go interviewing everyone will take time. Have we no carded information?"

    The Chief smiled.

    "Of course, I was going to suggest it — in Crime. I'll tell Fyodor to give you access."


As he attuned himself to the task, Viktor's life regulated itself accordingly. He applied himself with a vengeance ... Fyodor from Crime proved a godsend, sharing all that he had, which was plenty — from VIPs' lovers, male and female, to VIPs' lapses from virtue and other life events. In short, from him Viktor gleaned precisely those extra-CV details which, like fine Indian spices, transform an obelisk of sad, established fact into a gourmet dish. And each new batch he put regularly before the Chief.

    Everything in the garden was lovely. He had money in his pocket — not a lot, but more than enough for his modest requirements. His one occasional anxiety was his lack of recognition, even under a pseudonym, so tenacious of life were his obelisked notables. Out of more than 100 written-up VIPs, not only had none of them died, but not one had so much as fallen ill. Such reflections, however, did not affect the rhythm of his work. Assiduously he leafed through the papers, noting names, worming his way into lives. Our country must know who its notables are, he kept telling himself.

    One rainy November evening, when Misha the penguin was taking a cold bath and Viktor was pondering his subjects' tenacity of life, the phone rang.

    "I was put onto you by Igor Lvovich," wheezed a man's voice. "Something I'd like a word about."

    At the name of the Editor-in-Chief, Viktor said he would be glad to see him, and half an hour later was welcoming a smartly-dressed man of about 45. He had brought a bottle of whisky, and they sat down straight away at the kitchen table.

    "I'm Misha," he said, to the amused embarrassment of Viktor.

    "Sorry," he explained, "but so's my penguin."

    "I've got an old friend who's seriously ill," began the visitor. "Same age as me. Known each other since we were kids. Sergey Chekalin. I'd like to order an obituary ... Will you do it?"

    "Of course," said Viktor. "But I'll need some facts, preferably personal ones."

    "No problem," said Misha. "I know all there is to know and can tell you."

    "Go ahead."

    "Son of a fitter and a nursery governess. His dream, as a child, was to have a motorbike, and when he left school, he bought himself a Minsk, though it meant a bit of thieving to do so ... Deeply ashamed now of his past. Not that his present's any better. We're colleagues, he and I. We set up and we wind-up trusts. I'm good at it, he isn't. Wife left him recently. Been alone since. Not even had a lover."

    "Wife's name?"

    "Lena ... All in all, he's had a rough time of it. Healthwise, too."

    "In what way?"

    "Suspected stomach cancer, chronic prostate."

    "What did he most want out of life?"

    "What he'll never have, now: a silver Lincoln."

    The effect of their cocktail of words and whisky was to render Sergey Chekalin — failure, deserted by wife, ailing, alone and in poor health, dreaming the unrealizable dream of a silver Lincoln — a real presence at the table with them.

    "When do I come for it?" asked Misha finally.

    "Tomorrow, if you like."

    He left, and hearing a car start, Viktor looked out and saw a long, pretentious silver Lincoln draw away.

    He fed Misha freshly frozen plaice, topped up his bath, then returned to the kitchen and set to work on the obituary order. Through the tiny window between bathroom and kitchen he could hear splashing, and as he drafted the obelisk, he smiled, thinking of his penguin's love of clean, cold water.

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Death and the Penguin 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
dragonfly74 More than 1 year ago
The first book in Kurkov's pair of penguin novels is one of the more difficult books to explain. How can a book be "noir" and "cute" at once? How can a literary novel involve a character who is a penguin living in an apartment building with a down-and-out writer and yet never become overly postmodern or surreal? Because sometimes a penguin is just a penguin, which is the case in these two wonderfully charming, yet bleak novels. There is a warning though, that comes with this sophisticated book. By the time you've finished it you will desperately want a pet penguin, which would be very expensive.
slyswann More than 1 year ago
This book is absolutely charming. It definitely made me laugh out loud in restaurants. There are moments when the reader is aware that it's a tranlation, but that only lends to it's charm. The plot was interesting enough to keep me reading and Kurkov's wit is balanced by the darkness of the subject matter. I've already bought it as a gift once and I'm here today to purchase it again. This book joins "Everything is Illuminated" as one of the most delightful books I've read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In one of his more recent books, Death and the Penguin, author Andrey Kurkov tells about an ordinary writer named Viktor Zolotaryov in post-soviet Ukraine who has a not-so-ordinary pet. This creature called Misha, is a penguin who fell into the hands of Viktor when the local zoo could not feed it and is, for the time being, Viktor¿s only companion. Soon enough Viktor¿s normal life is snatched away when he takes the job of writing obituaries for a local newspaper and works under the shady chief of the company. The strange thing about these obituaries though, is that he writes them before the subject has even died. Nevertheless, Viktor continues to write the obituaries and soon becomes entangled in a web of mystery when he finds himself writing about famous people who die soon after the obituary is completed. Along the way he takes on the responsibility of caring for a stranger¿s child and becomes involved in a relationship with her nanny. Viktor¿s life seems to being going well until he realizes the power of his obituaries. Eventually he and his penguin are ensnared in a conspiracy with hit men, in which there is no way out. At first this book seems like a good mystery about a man and his penguin, pitted against the bad guys. But half way through, the book loses its appeal. It even becomes bizarre, largely due to his relationship with Nina the nanny. The conclusion is very depressing and confusing and leaves you unsatisfied, wanting to know what happens next. I was also disappointed by the extreme personality change Viktor goes through at the very end of the book which does not match up with his character. Overall I would stay away from this book unless you are looking for a dark and sometimes confusing mystery that will leave you asking questions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the best I've read in years. The characters are extremely well developed and easy to relate to. The plot is full of twists and turns, which at first are so funny I laughed out loud, but later become so moving I wanted to cry. This book is great for anyone that loves animals, a good mystery, or knows what it's like to feel lonely.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In true Russian form, this novel is bleak in nearly every way. It has every element you would expect from a Russian novel, including isolation and a long winter. It also has a penguin, and that brings a levity which must be experienced. It also has one of the best endings I've ever read.
Laura400 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very nice book. It's humorous but understated and dark. A little surreal. Very enjoyable.
fothpaul on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bizzare but enjoyable. Thought the character of Misha the penuin and Sonya were excellent. The setting of a run down and ill functioning Kiev is a perfect backdrop for the lonely Viktors troubles. I really felt for him and his troubles and was concerned for Misha on several occasions.
wilsonknut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Andrey Kurkov¿s Death and the Penguin is a very unique book. How often is a dark absurdist satire about life in the post-Soviet Ukraine an easy and pleasurable read? Kurkov delivers the grayness of Kiev and the absurdity of the circumstances in a calm deadpan tone. It is a mystery. It¿s humorous. It¿s also literary. It¿s fun to read.Viktor, the main character, is a frustrated writer only capable of writing ¿short short¿ stories of no consequence. His girlfriend left him sometime before the book begins, and he adopted a penguin named Misha from the zoo when the zoo could no longer feed the animals. After trying to sell one of his short short stories to the newspaper, Viktor is contacted by the editor. They want him to write obituaries for ¿notables¿ who have not yet died. Thus begins the mystery. Viktor naturally has questions, but is willing to put them off to be gainfully employed and handsomely paid. The notables begin to die suspicious deaths after Viktor turns in his obits, but he continues to work diligently. Viktor¿s ability to ignore and forget becomes the recurring theme through the book. Kurkov writes: An odd country, an odd life which he had no desire to make sense of. To endure, full stop, that was all he wanted.Later in the book as the mystery increases, Kurkov writes about Viktor: His instinct was to keep his back turned on all that was happening, and let it happen unseen, away from him and his life.But what is Viktor¿s life without the mystery? It is mostly a day to day grey existence filled with cup after cup of coffee and tea, punctuated by feeding Misha his fish. Misha, like Viktor, is suffering from isolation. He is a depressed penguin longing for contact with his own kind. Sleeping lightly that night, Viktor heard an insomniac Misha roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself.Misha also has a congenital heart defect that comes into play late in the book. In many ways, Viktor is Misha and vice versa. They both struggle to form genuine affectionate bonds with others. Misha nuzzling against Viktor¿s knee once when they are alone is the only affection the two show. Viktor often cares for others in the book simply because he has an ¿odd sense of duty.¿ He is a likeable guy, but he¿s despondent. He is left to care for Sonya, the daughter of a shady acquaintance who disappears. He also takes in the nanny as a companion and even sleeps with her, but he states multiple times that love is not part of their makeshift family. Little Sonya tells Viktor that a suspicious man asked her on the street if Viktor loved her, ¿And I told him you didn¿t much.¿ The few friends Viktor makes die or disappear. Yet, he endures.I¿ve painted a bleak picture, but the book really is a fun read. Viktor is given odd instructions throughout the book by various shady characters. He is paid to take Misha to the funerals of mafia members. Things appear overnight in the house. There is some deeper symbolism to be pondered in the book. The 1980 Olympics in Moscow used ¿Misha¿ the bear as a mascot (the bear being the traditional symbol of Russia). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the state of the Ukraine in the late 1990s, depressed Misha the penguin seems to have deeper significance. Do with that what you will.Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov and translated by George Bird is part of Melville House Publishing¿s International Crime series and was published by Melville House in June 2011. Melville House will also publish the sequel Penguin Lost in September 2011. You can preorder any book there and get it 30 days early.Death and the Penguin was originally published in 1996 in Russian.
birdsam0610 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was given the opportunity to read Death and the Penguin by Melville House Publishing (thank you!), who offered me an eBook. Reading about this book had me hooked from the first couple of sentences ¿ set in Kiev, Ukraine, this book is about Vik who falls into a mysterious job of writing obituaries from home in the company of his penguin, Misha. Although Kurkov is Ukrainian, the book is translated from the Russian (I can hear my ancestors complaining about this!) but has studied many languages, working as a prison warder before turning to writing. According to Goodreads, he has a hobby of collecting cacti.Does that sound odd? Not to me, I find the former Soviet bloc countries and their people fascinating - so many juxtapositions between the old and new, irony and enthusiasm. If the above sounds plausible to you, you¿ll enjoy Death and the Penguin. This was the first Ukrainian fiction book I¿ve read and I¿ll certainly read more of Kurkov¿s works. Eastern European literature is much more than just War and Peace! (Which coincidentally, I¿ve been thinking about reading of late).My first worry, that the prose would be difficult to understand after the translation of Russian to English was unfounded. This was based on my grandfather¿s translation of jokes from Ukrainian to English ¿ often falling very flat. No problems with this book though, George Bird has translated this book perfectly. The subtle irony and humour have made a successful translation to English, including the joke on the first page.Now that I¿ve told you that this book works well, what is it actually about? Our protagonist is Viktor, a single man living in a Kiev apartment with the penguin he took from the zoo last year when they were reducing their animal numbers. (Was this common post-Soviet times?) Viktor tries to write short stories, unsuccessfully in between feeding Misha the penguin and being lonely. Then Viktor is offered the opportunity to write obituaries ¿ for people who are not yet dead. He takes to this task with fervour, but then odd things start to happen¿he meets Misha-non-penguin and his daughter, Sonya (eventually taking over her care when Misha goes missing) and Misha (penguin) is asked to attend funerals for money. Viktor¿s obituary topics keep turning up dead and things keep appearing in his kitchen table, even though the door is locked ¿ from the inside. While all this happens, Viktor gets a girlfriend, friends and a surrogate daughter.This is brilliantly, subtly written. The crime tends to take place in the background and the characters seem to accept some of these things as `normal¿ (e.g. gunshots, having to `go to ground¿) - which perhaps was more likely in the Ukraine of the 1990s. Organised crime and political problems seem to be rampant in this book. The characters are quite likeable with all their quirks, and Misha the penguin is written brilliantly ¿ he is a character, rather than just a quirky type of pet. Cognac and vodka also feature quite prominently as well as the weather, which seems to range from freezing to just plain cold. Kurkov has the ability to weave all the drama into Viktor¿s everyday life and make it seem ¿ almost normal. So we know that when Viktor starts to get worried, it¿s time for us to be really worried. The ending is quite emotional (and unexpected to me), but I hear that there¿s a sequel which I must try to hunt down¿
AHS-Wolfy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Viktor is a frustrated aspiring author but his short stories are often too short and any sign of a novel is so distant it might as well be the other side of the world. And that's pretty much where his constant companion, Misha the penguin, comes from. The zoo couldn't afford to keep all their animals and asked the public to take some off their hands so that's how Viktor and Misha came together. One day Viktor gets a job offer from a local paper. They liked his writing style though couldn't publish a story he'd submitted but thought his technique suited a new kind of obituary they wanted to try. Viktor starts writing them for notable personages that aren't quite dead yet so doesn't immediately see the fruits of his labour and it's only when one of those he's written about dies in suspicious circumstances that Viktor gets an inkling of what his new position is all about. His fears are increased when one of the people who provide his work asks him to take care of his daughter as he has to disappear for a while. After no immediate reappearance occurs, this necessitates the employing of a nanny to help him look after the little girl and so a family unit is born. When this family starts to become more of a reality will Viktor start questioning what he does for a living? And what will it get him if he does?This fairly bleak story is riddled with dark humour. Set in the post-Soviet era Kiev with a lot of political manoeuvring (off-stage) which affects the main protagonists life dramatically but he seems to readily accept his situation no matter how much he's put upon. He tries to make the best of events while trying to keep as low a profile as possible. It's not that easy to lie low with a penguin in tow. The story follows Viktor in his day-to-day life but it's the relationship he has with Misha that really infuses it with warmth and feeling as his dealings with other people are quite cold and distant.I definitely want to read more from this author and will, at some time, be seeking out the sequel to this particular story.
alana_leigh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For some reason, this book caught my eye ages ago, on a table in Barnes and Noble, and I picked it up and knew it would be a Great Book. Three years later, I tucked it into a suitcase and read it in one sitting on the train and while I certainly think it has incredible elements to it, the hype of having it tucked away for a few years meant that I had that sense of wanting something a bit more... but only upon initially closing the book. I don't necessarily read a great deal of existentialist literature, but I quite enjoyed this... particularly the writing style and the characters, and further reflection upon it only seems to improve the work.The basic plot is this: Viktor is a semi-aspiring writer (who lacks ambition and inspiration) living in post-Soviet Kiev. His only true companion is his pet penguin, Misha. Why does he keep a penguin as a pet? Well, when the zoo could no longer afford to feed some of its animals, it gave them away to those who could (which is a true story). Viktor, having just broken up with his girlfriend, was a bit lonely, and so he took on Misha, and King Penguin. Now, this isn't a story with a talking penguin, so don't think we've gone there. No, Misha simply waddles around the apartment, a bit depressed and lost, so he and Viktor are somewhat alike as we start out in this novel. But then Viktor gets a job writing obituaries - obelisks as the book calls them - for those VIPs in their society who have not yet died, the idea being that these tributes will be on hand when they do. Of course, things aren't always what they seem and just when Viktor appears to find his life settling into something resembling the stereotypical dream of job and family, he discovers that his obelisks are being used as a kind of hit list.I had tried to get this into my book club for discussion, but no one seemed terribly enthused, which leaves me to muddle through the questions it raises on my own. Naturally, my favorite parts of the novel are with Misha, who became so vivid in my imagination as he moved through the apartment and looked at Viktor with sad eyes. Viktor himself is an interesting character, vacillating between paranoid despair and an ignorant (but actively opting to be ignorant) and childlike contentment. Things tend to fall into his lap (the job, another man's daughter for Viktor to raise, a relationship with the girl's nanny) and he tends to simply accept them, make the most of things, and not question them. One cannot help but ask how much one tends to accept in his/her own life in a similar way as to Viktor... how much benefits us in a "no questions asked" kind of way, even if ours must certainly be a bit different. (When were you last paid $1000 for showing up at a funeral with a penguin?) But the only creature that Viktor seems to have a real connection with is Misha, who came about as a result of an active choice to take on a penguin from the zoo... though perhaps unsurprising since Misha is used as a mirror for Viktor himself throughout the story.If I knew more about post-Soviet Ukraine, I'm sure I could have gleaned more from the relationship between the media, the government, and the mafia -- or at least beyond the obvious manipulations of them all upon each other. I mean, I was prepared for the drinking and the routine murder from simple historical stereotypes of this period of time. What I can determine is that there's certainly something to be said about entrusting your fate to the mafia rather than the government (which is perhaps why Kurkov's work was banned in Russia), as the mafia seems more capable of caring for you. It seems to make no difference which camp you're in, as life is just as precarious either way, but at least the mafia seems to have the funds capable of caring for your body if not your conscience. Some reviews have called the prose "cold", but I imagine it's simply apt as a voice representative of the Ukraine and its people. An absurdist humor, a resignation to certain goings-on in
bkwriter4life on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Viktor owns a penguin named Misha and writes obelisks (obituaries) for a newspaper. An aspiring writer, he shines and is paid modestly for his obelisks. Then he inherits, Sonya, the daughter of Misha non-penguin for awhile. Soon after, Viktor hires nanny, Nina, who becomes Sonya's pseudo Mom and Viktor's pseudo wife. Then things go awry when his boss fails to reveal why Viktor is being watched closely.A chilling, icy, and melancholy story about a man living in his own world. The salient feature of this story is how dry the story reads even with all the death surrounding Viktor including attending funerals of not known folks and Misha being invited just because he's a penguin. Enjoyable and entertaining. Slow at times but the story worked.
Greatrakes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A satire on life in post-communist Ukraine, political assassination is rife, gangsters and oligarchs run the country, hospitals have no drugs and everything is in decay. Viktor is a forty year old unsuccessful writer, who picks up an unusual commission - to write obituaries for people who are still living. He is the archetypal good man who turns a blind eye to evil, because turning a blind eye is the only way to get by. People start to die and his passivity leads him into ever murkier areas, testing his powers of denial to the limits. Not being able to say no also results in him acquiring a family consisting of a depressed penguin, the four year old daughter of a gangster, and a 17 year old nanny/mistress.I really enjoyed this book, the detachment of its protagonist and cool measured description of an increasingly mad world really hooked me, and it's very funny, too.
isabelx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A struggling author called Viktor becomes the proud owner of a depressive king penguin called Misha when the zoo in Kiev gives away the animals it can no longer afford to feed. A year later, he takes what seems initially like a simple job writing obituaries ahead of need for a Kiev newspaper, and finds himself and his penguin entangled in some rather sinister goings on.This black comedy set in the post-communist Ukraine is a short tale full of humour and pathos. I loved the thought of Misha the penguin being asked to attend funerals to add a bit of class!
Rhysickle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reading the other reviews, everyone else seems to love the ultra deadpan style. Too dry for me.
guanarteme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Death and the Penguin is a gripping novel about a man named Victor and his adopted pet penguin Misha. Aspiring author Victor is hired by a post-soviet, mob-owned newspaper to write obituaries for the undead. Eventually, as each obituary nears publication, the subject of each obituary dies. Kurkov takes us on a wild chase of reality amidst absurdity. . . Or is it absurdity amidst reality?. . . Or are they one and the same? As I see it, this is the point of the novel--that with time people will embrace absurdity as normality.
jaygheiser on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great short novel. Just a bit surreal. Deals with a writer who gains employment writing speculative obits for a newspaper, and it turns out that he is being manipulated as part of a russian power struggle.
anna10186 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I absolutely adored this book! What's amazing about it is the fact that the main subjects in it are death & lonliness, yet it's filled with so much humor, irony and wit that you just can't help but constantly smile while reading it. Simply brilliant!
girlwriter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this so much. Darkly funny yet poignant.
themockturtle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This whimsical novel features a short story author turned obituarist. During the course of his employment, during which he is to write the future obituaries of notable people, he finds that the subjects of his "obelisk jobs" have a tendency to turn up dead. It is an interesting glimpse into both a dreary occupation and life in post-Soviet Union Ukraine. Also there is a mono-polaric depressive penguin called, "Misha" who lives with our ill-fated hero and is the object of most of his affection; and while Misha never speaks, his presence and influence is felt throughout the story proving there are far too few penguins in literature.
soniaandree on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ukrainian tragico-comedy, a journalist adopts a penguin from the zoo and starts writing obituaries for politicians who are still alive. Once the obituary is written, the politicians end up dead - coincidence? Or has the writer served as a tool for the local mafia's murders? This is just the start of the hero's adventures...
ablueidol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bitter-sweet satire as a writer gets caught up with the deadly struggles of the political-business elites as he tries to make sense of a empty personal life. This starting with misha the penguin soon becomes increasingly full and complicated as he acquires friends a girl friend, a child. Full of memorable characters and images. More liteweight then expected but avoids a Hollywood endng yet strangely unresolved- sequels I fear await
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unusual story and a bit depressing. Still it was curiously interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is as paranoid as most and usual angst of always terrible things behind everything but has more humor than usual if dark the penguin is of course what makes it different few alternate pets in novels stand out crispen does well with them and once in a while the series of crouching buzzard.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago