Country Focus: Ukraine (Ukrayina in Ukrainian)
Death and the Penguin
By Andrey Kurkov
Translated by George Bird
Originally published in Russian as Smert’ postoronnego by Alterpress, 1996.
My edition: Harvill Press, 2001
Time period: 1990s, post-independence from the Soviet Union
About the author: Kurkov’s latest work is Ukraine Diaries, a series of his personal journal entries covering November 2013 -April 2014. The entries juxtapose accounts of his daily life in Kiev with the concurrent Euromaidan Uprising. Some of the damage Kiev incurred can be seen in the current header photo, a before and after shot of Kiev’s Independence Square. The left side was taken on April 22, 2009; the right side on February 20, 2014. Credit AFP/Getty Images.
Yes, one of the stars of this droll mystery is an actual, tuxedo-feathered, awkwardly waddling, fish-loving king penguin. Named Misha, he’s the sole charge of Viktor Alekseyvich Zolotaryov. Viktor acquired his avian companion when the local zoo announced that it could no longer feed its animals and was giving them away to citizens. This scenario is not as unlikely as I had initially imagined. Although I found no information on zoo giveaways back in the early nineties, I was dismayed to see that Ukraine’s bankrupt government cut funding to all of its zoos as of March 2014. The zoos haven’t yet resorted to passing out penguins, but the situation looks quite grim.
But back to Viktor and Misha. Viktor, an aspiring writer, gets a job at a newspaper writing obituaries (called “obelisks” by the editor) for the city’s living politicians, criminals and celebrities—Viktor chooses who—to be filed away until the VIPs kick the bucket. He pens dozens of obelisks, but his subjects remain resolutely alive and he remains unpublished.
Then one day Viktor by is approached a man who has heard about Viktor’s skill set from the editor. This man, who is also named Misha, (he’s called “Misha-non-penguin” so there’s no confusion between man and bird) hires Viktor to compose obelisks for specific people…and that’s when Viktor’s work starts appearing in print. After Viktor’s initial excitement at being published fades, he begins to question the ethics of his work and his employer. How long will it be before the next obelisk that runs in the paper commemorates him?
Death and the Penguin radiates a gloomy charm. Lonely, apathetic Viktor and displaced, silent Misha act as excellent mirrors of each other. The unusual plot cuts along steadily, ushering new people into Viktor’s life: a potential friend, a surrogate daughter, a romantic interest, and a penguinologist. It’s quickly apparent that he’s about as emotionally equipped to connect with them as Misha is. In one of his quirky insights, he admits that he’s “interdependent” rather than loving. That’s a pretty hard truth to realize, even for a fictional character. I suspect that Death and the Penguin is one of the oddest mysteries I’ll ever read. Perhaps because life in Ukraine—in both this novel and in the current news—seems anything but normal.
He sank into his armchair.
Here, on the broad arm beside him, was where, just over a year ago, petite blonde Olya, of attractive little snub nose and perpetually reproachful expression, was wont to perch. Sometimes she would rest her head on his shoulder and fall asleep, plunging into dreams in which he, very likely, had no place. Only in reality was he allowed to be present. Though even there, he rarely felt needed. Silent and thoughtful—that was her. What, since her pushing off without a word, had altered? Standing beside him now was Misha the penguin. He was silent, but was he thoughtful too? What did being thoughtful amount to? Just a word describing the way one looked, perhaps?
Ukrainian writers need to be translated!