Monday, September 12, 2011

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

58. Death and the Penguin
by Andrey Kurkov
translated by George Bird
fiction, 1996
Kindle book, 35
finished, 8/25/11

This is one of the oddest little tales I've read. It takes place in Kiev, Ukraine after the end of the USSR. Our main character, Viktor got his penguin, Misha when the zoo was getting rid of animals to save money. He takes cold baths in the tub and eats frozen fish and occasionally snuggles against Viktor's knee. But Misha suffers from 'depressive syndrome' and from heart trouble as a result of it. Viktor learns this from Pidpaly, an old man who knows everything about penguins. He tells Viktor that the best thing he can do for Misha is to bring him where he belongs.
Imagine the torment of living where it's up to 40º+ in summer and occasionally down to -10º in winter, when you've got two layers of fat protecting you against intense cold, to say nothing of hundreds of blood vessels doing the same. Just imagine: you get superheated internally. You burn up … Practically all penguins living in zoos exhibit depressive syndrome.
So, there they are, Viktor and Misha
…two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.
The book is surreal and strange, but presented in such a quiet way that it seems like it is real, just not in any way I've known. Viktor's job is writing obituaries, called obelisks, of powerful, famous people before they die, so they'll be on record and all ready to publish when the deaths occur. He is given lots of notes from the newspaper to study, filled with
those extra-CV details which, like fine Indian spices, transform an obelisk of sad, established fact into a gourmet dish.
One day a man calls saying he was referred to Viktor by the newspaper editor. He requests an obituary for a friend who is ill. The man's name is Misha, so from then forward Viktor thinks of him as 'Misha-non-penguin.' He offers the prospect of more work.

We also meet a 'miliatiaman' who agrees to come by and take care of Misha when Viktor must go to another town to collect some information for the newspaper. Viktor asks him because one, he has no friends, and two, because he is reminded of an old joke about a militiaman and a penguin. This joke is at the very beginning of the book. I'll repeat it here because, in a way, its oddness and wry humor typify the whole of Death and the Penguin.
A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin.
"Take him to the zoo," he orders.
Some time later the same major is driving along when he sees the militiaman still with the penguin.
"What have you been doing?" he asks. "I said take him to the zoo."
"We've been to the zoo, Comrade Major," says the militiaman, "and the circus. And now we're going to the pictures.'
When Viktor tells Misha-non-penguin that he never gets to read the obituaries he has written because the people don't die, the next day one does, a mobster type. There's clearly something going on here that Viktor doesn't understand.

A little girl is dropped off by her father (Misha-non-penguin) for Viktor to take care of, along with a substantial amount of money. This money allows Viktor to hire a nanny, Nina who is the niece of the militiaman, and suddenly lonely Viktor has a little family of man, woman, child, and penguin.

At one point in the book, some guys want Misha (the penguin) to attend funerals. Whoa. What is this all about? And by the end I still wasn't sure. But I liked it. I want to read Penguin Lost to find out more about Misha and Viktor. If you find any of these passages intriguing, and if they appeal to your sense of humor please do give the book a try. I can quite guarantee you've never read anything like it!


  1. Lovely review/introduction to a book I've never heard of!
    It sounds fascinating in a quirky/ fun way.

    Thanks Nan

    And I found the joke funny :0)

  2. I think I've seen this book in a couple of blogs before, but I think your review was the tipping point. It does sound good and I like quirky if pulled off well.

  3. Thanks for your words, Christy. The setting plays such a part in the book - the conditions of life there were very bleak- in terms of physical space, loneliness, acts of violence that occur.

  4. Wonderful review. As long as the penguin doesn't die, I'll be interested in reading it. This sounds like intelligent quirky. I like intelligent quirky. :)

  5. Yvette, the sequel is about Viktor going on a search for Misha. You're just like me. That's the first thing I have to know about a book with an animal. :<) Misha lives, and I'll bet he lives in the next book too. The setting is so well done, so real that the reader is pulled right in. I think you'll like it.

  6. Hi, Nan, You do find and recommend the most interesting and diverse books. I'd never heard of either this author or his works. Will have to look around the library and give it a try.

  7. Canadian Chickadee, I hadn't ever heard of either one myself. More info at the publisher site:


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