Death and the Penguin

For some reason, this book caught my eye ages ago, on a table in Barnes and Noble, and I picked it up and knew it would be a Great Book. Three years later, I tucked it into a suitcase and read it in one sitting on the train and while I certainly think it has incredible elements to it, the hype of having it tucked away for a few years meant that I had that sense of wanting something a bit more... but only upon initially closing the book. I don't necessarily read a great deal of existentialist literature, but I quite enjoyed this... particularly the writing style and the characters, and further reflection upon it only seems to improve the work.

The basic plot is this: Viktor is a semi-aspiring writer (who lacks ambition and inspiration) living in post-Soviet Kiev. His only true companion is his pet penguin, Misha. Why does he keep a penguin as a pet? Well, when the zoo could no longer afford to feed some of its animals, it gave them away to those who could (which is a true story). Viktor, having just broken up with his girlfriend, was a bit lonely, and so he took on Misha, and King Penguin. Now, this isn't a story with a talking penguin, so don't think we've gone there. No, Misha simply waddles around the apartment, a bit depressed and lost, so he and Viktor are somewhat alike as we start out in this novel. But then Viktor gets a job writing obituaries - obelisks as the book calls them - for those VIPs in their society who have not yet died, the idea being that these tributes will be on hand when they do. Of course, things aren't always what they seem and just when Viktor appears to find his life settling into something resembling the stereotypical dream of job and family, he discovers that his obelisks are being used as a kind of hit list.

I had tried to get this into my book club for discussion, but no one seemed terribly enthused, which leaves me to muddle through the questions it raises on my own. Naturally, my favorite parts of the novel are with Misha, who became so vivid in my imagination as he moved through the apartment and looked at Viktor with sad eyes. Viktor himself is an interesting character, vacillating between paranoid despair and an ignorant (but actively opting to be ignorant) and childlike contentment. Things tend to fall into his lap (the job, another man's daughter for Viktor to raise, a relationship with the girl's nanny) and he tends to simply accept them, make the most of things, and not question them. One cannot help but ask how much one tends to accept in his/her own life in a similar way as to Viktor... how much benefits us in a "no questions asked" kind of way, even if ours must certainly be a bit different. (When were you last paid $1000 for showing up at a funeral with a penguin?) But the only creature that Viktor seems to have a real connection with is Misha, who came about as a result of an active choice to take on a penguin from the zoo... though perhaps unsurprising since Misha is used as a mirror for Viktor himself throughout the story.

If I knew more about post-Soviet Ukraine, I'm sure I could have gleaned more from the relationship between the media, the government, and the mafia -- or at least beyond the obvious manipulations of them all upon each other. I mean, I was prepared for the drinking and the routine murder from simple historical stereotypes of this period of time. What I can determine is that there's certainly something to be said about entrusting your fate to the mafia rather than the government (which is perhaps why Kurkov's work was banned in Russia), as the mafia seems more capable of caring for you. It seems to make no difference which camp you're in, as life is just as precarious either way, but at least the mafia seems to have the funds capable of caring for your body if not your conscience. Some reviews have called the prose "cold", but I imagine it's simply apt as a voice representative of the Ukraine and its people. An absurdist humor, a resignation to certain goings-on in life, an emphasis on how it's better not to know too much...

No matter what, if I can somehow find Kurkov's other works, I'll certainly be quicker about reading those than I was this one. And you should waste no time in discovering this gem for yourself.

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