Death and the Penguin
|Original title||Смерть постороннего|
|Cover artist||Pablo Armago|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|Followed by||Penguin Lost|
Death and the Penguin is a novel by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. Originally published in 1996 in Russian (as Смерть постороннего, Smert' postoronnego), it was translated and published in English in 2001. It is a bleak, satirical work with surreal elements and dark humour, and is also credited by The Independent's Lesley Chamberlain as being one of the texts to "get Russian literature going again after the post-Soviet hiatus".
The novel follows the life of a young aspiring writer, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov, in a struggling post-Soviet society. Viktor, initially aiming to write novels, gets a job writing obituaries for a local newspaper. The source of the title is Viktor's pet penguin Misha, a king penguin obtained after the local zoo in Kiev gave away its animals to those who could afford to support them. Kurkov uses Misha as a sort of mirror of (and eventual source of salvation for) Viktor. Throughout the story, Misha is also lost, unhappy and generally out of his element, literally and figuratively. One of the striking themes of the novel is Viktor's tendency to go from justifiably paranoid appraisals of his increasingly dangerous position to a serene, almost childish, peace of mind. As such there are many elements of existentialist thought in the text.
Viktor's work is accepted enthusiastically by the editor-in-chief of the paper but Viktor soon finds that his obituaries are being used as a hit list for enemies of some unknown organization for which the paper is just a front. Shortly thereafter, he is left to look after Sonya, daughter of his mysterious friend Misha (referred to as Misha-non-penguin in the text to differentiate him from Misha the penguin). He and the child develop a tenuous though tenable relationship which serves to further highlight Viktor's isolated existence. After Misha-non-penguin leaves Sonya a large sum of money, Viktor hires a nanny (Nina) who is the niece of his only other friend Sergey. Over time, a physical yet passionless relationship develops between Viktor and Nina and the "family" is crystallized. Ironically, the deepest emotional relationship amongst all four individuals is between Viktor and his penguin.
After settling into a more or less normal life with Sonya and Nina and a lucrative side job of attending funerals of former obituary subjects with Misha, Viktor's illusion of security is undermined. He finds that an anonymous man (referred in the text only as "fat man") has been following Sonya and Nina and asking them endless questions posing as an old friend. When he tracks down his follower he finds that the fat man has become the new obituary writer and he, Viktor, has become the new obituary subject. At the same time, Misha has fallen ill and needs a heart transplant. Anonymous sponsors foot the bill but Viktor has decided that Misha is to be returned to his natural habitat in Antarctica. He donates $2000 to the upcoming Ukrainian expedition to Antarctica on condition that they take Misha. However, after finding that he is a marked man, Viktor decides to let the mafia take care of the penguin and he himself takes the ticket to Antarctica. The book ends with Viktor successfully fleeing to Antarctica.
The novel is not about mafia intrigue but rather about one man and his pet/avatar as they are caught up in situations they do not understand. As such, the actual power of his obituaries and the circumstances surrounding the ensuing deaths are only hinted at, often in the context of Viktor's own musings.
- Chamberlain, Lesley - The Independent - 2001.