Penguin and paranoia in post-Soviet Ukraine

Death and the Penguin is a game of chance played with a stacked deck – and against a card sharp no less, one who turns the tables on this writer of obelisks. Andrey Kurkov’s novel has the sullen resentment of living fairly in an unfair world, and it has a dark humor to combat that same resentment. It’s also one that might make the lonely feel a little less alone.

Kurkov, Death and the PenguinDeath and the Penguin · Andrey Kurkov · 1996
George Bird translation · Vintage, 2001 · 228 pages, Paperback

When you do know what’s what, it will mean there no longer is any real point to your work or to your continuing existence.

Viktor Zolotaryov writes obituaries of deputies, military officials, businessmen and others of VIP caliber in Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin. But the obituaries have a predetermined publication date – that list of notables from which Viktor has been taking his assignments is also a hitman’s register.

Kurkov writes with a dry humor that pities while it amuses, and this deadpan irony rolls his story from action to inaction and back again in the high-strung world of post-Soviet Ukraine.

It’s penguin Mischa, Viktor’s adopted pet, who, alongside a New Year’s looting, a murder outside friend Sergey’s dacha and an enterprising expedition to Antarctica (advertised on an old black-and-white), that places Death and the Penguin in this foreshortened context.

Kurkov may write of post-Soviet Ukraine, but his emphasis on every means justified and always having an eye out for escape feel reminiscent of the Soviet way of doing things; and his penguin stand-in, coupled with a dip into far-searching discovery, bring to mind Laika and Sputnik II. Kurkov, it seems, wanted his readers to feel his country’s past and its bondage to Moscow as if these were its present.

The obituaries Viktor writes, referred to as obelisks, the word an apt one as monument for the dead and as dagger-shaped typographical mark of the footnote, are both the means and the ends in this twisted game of paranoia and human checkers.

Viktor embodies that feeling, his mood changeable from even-keeled contentment to hyper vigilance and alarm. His character is one at ease with this changeability: life as it has always been known to him with instinct of fight or flight immediately at hand.

To every time its own normality. The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what might.

His work is brought to him in packets, delivered by a driver or by another intermediary, and it’s a fool’s thought that Mischa non-penguin, associate of dubious connection, or Igor Lvovich, supposed editor for the Capital News that publishes his work, are the honest men they try to appear to be.

Kurkov created for his novel just one reliably present character, Viktor. The others who people its pages only come and go and create strange bonds that tie Viktor to places and things and give him the weight of responsibility but without the completeness of friendship, love or even constancy.

Viktor, who has long lived in solitude except for penguin Mischa, casts his eyes to the side after glimpsing Nina’s adjustments – her written “Daddy” and “Mummy” as addenda to 4-year-old Sonya’s family-style portrait of the three of them plus penguin. He isn’t sure he can approve of this illusory family, and theirs is only a family of convenience anyway and maybe of necessity, now Sonya’s father has become elusive.

Viktor takes his comfort in the unknown woman across the courtyard whose kitchen light bulb hangs bright at midnight just as his own does, but it’s not so much companionship as a shared loneliness.

In Kurkov’s novel we feel this ersatz familiarity of a life constructed to be that way: its trussing connections – whether fast friend who falls away to the provinces or nanny-cum-lover who creates for herself the name of mother to a shady associate’s niece – are as makeshift and flimsy as Soviet engineering and as desperate as the need to live merely for the sake of not dying. After all, an obituary is an attempt to offset obsolescence.

Death and the Penguin · Andrey Kurkov · 1996
George Bird translation · Vintage, 2001 · 228 pages, Paperback

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