Friday, December 9, 2011

Review of Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (Vintage, 2003; in Russian 1996)

Victor is a lonely aspiring writer in post-Soviet Kiev who lives with Misha, a depressed King Penguin who he has adopted from the city zoo who were unable to afford to look after the bird. Unable to place enough short stories to make a living, Victor approaches a newspaper to see if they might have any work. They immediately offer him a job writing obelisks - obituaries for notable people who have not yet died. The work seems straightforward and Victor's life starts to change in both positive and weird ways - he gains a new friend and a surrogate family; people keep letting themselves into his apartment and leaving him things. He also starts to notice that his obelisks are starting to be printed with unnerving regulatory. And more unsettling still, the grieving families want Misha to attend the funerals. As the truth behind his work emerges, Victor feels increasingly alienated and trapped.

Death and the Penguin is a black tragic-comedy. It is written in short, simple sentences and told through a series of short scenes in a deadpan style. The premise of the story is interesting and the telling is deceptively effective. There is a nice building up of additional characters and there is a good sense of place in post-Soviet Kiev, though some wider political contextualisation would have been useful. The inclusion of Misha was, I thought, was a nice touch and was well used. There were, however, two main issues with the story. The first was that Victor was very one-dimensional as a character with little emotional depth or resonance. He seemed quite monotonous regardless of circumstance or context. The second is that towards the end of the story, the narrative veered towards the absurd and for me, at least, started to fall apart. Overall, I enjoyed the read, but wasn't bowled over by it.

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