nineveh_uk (nineveh_uk) wrote,

Book: Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov

A would-be novelist who finds himself overburdened by the wordcount of even a short story gets a job with a newspaper writing obituaries. In the inevitable manner of an obituary writer in a work of fiction he chaffs at never seeing his work in print, until suddenly one of his subjects dies in suspicious circumstances and his life starts to get steadily more complicated. Then one day the worst happens: his pet penguin falls dangerously ill.

I should note at this point that the penguin is not imaginary or a nickname for a black and white dog. It is a real pet penguin he got when Kiev zoo was giving animals away because it didn't have money to feed them, something that apparently really happened.

This was one of those books that you read thinking "It's good, but it would be better if I knew even a tiny bit more about the modern Ukrainian society that he is satirising." It's written in a lightly absurd, observational sort of style that lulls the reader along. The reader joins the protagonist and, by implication the residents of Kiev, for whom it is impossible to feel really outraged about what is happening, this is just the way that things are, and survival means keeping your head down and going with the flow, even if this means you find yourself responsible for the infant daughter of a mafia boss, and your penguin in demand as a professional mourner.

I did get a bit irritated at one point with the depiction of the novel's sole significant adult female character, a young woman who becomes the child's nanny and the narrators girlfriend/lover/person he inevitably has sex with, and who is depicted with no interiority whatsoever. But of course that's the point: that she, like our narrator, has little choice but to go along with the situation that she finds herself in.* Isolated, deprived of genuine human connection, preference, morality and desire are irrelevant to the requirement to get on with what life one has according to what chance throws one's way.

It's weird, it's relatively short, it's worth reading. It will not fill you with cheer about the current situation in Ukraine, but in the end despite the gloom, our protagonist does have one truly human connection that saves him. Albeit with a penguin.

*Though he nonetheless manages a "male author describes female characters breasts" moment.

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Tags: books
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