Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ukrainian Penguins, and Death

London : Harvill Press, c2001
(originally published in Russian in 1996)

This novel is a selection for two challenges, Annie's What's in a Name challenge and the Russian Reading challenge. I wanted to read it because it is set in Ukraine, specifically Kiev. The fact that it was written in Russian caused a bit of a fuss in the newly sovereign Ukraine. Language has always been a hot topic in literature; just like Ireland and England, Russia and Ukraine have struggled with the politicization of language. Why the Ukrainian Kurkov chooses to write in Russian is a topic I am sure dissertations could be written on; however, they won't be written by me!
This book seemed like a good choice to get myself back on track with all the reviews I need -- want -- to catch up on. I just ran a preschool program (always enlivening) with the theme of penguins, perhaps unconsciously inspired by finishing this book. Now that I think on it, one of the picture books I used, Oliver Jeffers' Lost & Found, has similar themes: the loneliness of a boy and that of a penguin he finds on his doorstep. The boy decides to return the penguin to Antarctica, but eventually realizes that what the penguin really wants is a friend, not a trip home. "Complementary lonelinesses" is how Viktor Zolotaryov, protagonist of Death and the Penguin, describes his relationship with his penguin Misha; Viktor's plans to send Misha back to the Antarctic also come to naught. Very intriguing parallels!
Anywaaay, the basic plot of Kurkov's surreal story is as follows: Viktor is a struggling writer who dreams of being a novelist, but can only manage short stories. He lives in a small flat in post-Soviet Kiev, with his depressive penguin Misha, who he took in when the zoo was getting rid of animals it couldn't afford to feed. Just accept that initial absurdity and you can have a lot of fun with this story; it provides a look at the absolute corruption of a society shaking off its Soviet mores. Viktor finally gets a writing job; he writes obituaries for notable Kievans who are not yet dead. His florid writing style has found favour at the large newspaper he now works for, but he comes to realize that as he writes his obits, his subjects are dropping dead. He starts to question this, but drops it when his boss tells him,

"Think what you like. But bear in mind this: the moment you are told what the point of your work is, you're dead...the full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required."

Viktor's disinclination to find out what is really going on makes perfect sense in this chaotic and surreal world, full of danger for the curious. Misha, who lives behind the sofa in an incomprehensible flat, mirrors Viktor's existence in an incomprehensible society. This does not prevent him from continuing to write obits, however, as they pay well.
Viktor's philosophy of life is to endure. He lives in an austere solitude, broken only by Misha's presence. Of course, Misha being a penguin, there is no communication, only side by side solitudes. Nonetheless, Misha's existence leads to Viktor's befriending the local policeman, Sergey Fischbein-Stepanenko. That friendship begins to break the chill of Viktor's relations with other people, but ends badly. He also takes in the young daughter of a character known as "Misha non-penguin", a shady compatriot of his new boss, but doesn't feel much beyond duty in caring for her. Sergey's niece Nina becomes the little girl's nanny and quickly also Viktor's lover, although there doesn't seem to be any feeling between them besides utility. They come to resemble a family unit, but it is in appearance only. He almost makes that imaginative leap to empathy and compassion with Misha - trying to find out why he is depressed by consulting a retired penguinologist, taking Misha out to a frozen lake to swim, feeding him copious amounts of seafood, and finally booking a place for him with the Ukrainian Antarctic Committee's research trip to Antarctica - but when Misha is held captive at a veterinary clinic by Viktor's pursuers, well, he essentially abandons him to his fate. The book is very clever, with much black humour, and the sense of individuals adrift in a disconnected society is communicated very clearly. In all the reviews I've looked at, Kurkov's artistic descent from Bulgakov is mentioned repeatedly. Since I haven't yet read Bulgakov, I can't really comment on that, but it certainly makes me want to pick up Bulgakov as my next Russian read. (in between my ongoing War & Peace reading, of course!)
I'm also looking forward to reading some current Ukrainian literature, written in Ukrainian, from the point of view of some of the new young Ukrainian nationalist writers, post-Orange Revolution. Perhaps I will glimpse a view of Ukraine from other eyes than those of a Russian living in a state cast adrift from the Soviet Empire.


  1. You're reading War and Peace? I envy you. I tried to re-read Les Miserables, but it seems that this season in my life was not made for long, involved, intense rambling novels like War and Peace or Les Miserables. Maybe someday I'll come back to War and Peace again.

  2. This one sounds too good. Thanks for pointing it out, I will have to see if I can find a copy here at the library.

  3. What a fascinating and unusual read!

  4. Wow, that sounds a little weird but in a good way, if that makes sense! :)

  5. I really enjoyed your review. The book sounds strange but a fun read. I'm going to look for this one.
    I found my way here through the What's in a name challenge.

  6. I'm glad this one sounds interesting to you all; you're right, it's unusual but an entertaining read!


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