Review: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

“The past believed in dates. And everyone’s life consisted of dates, giving life a rhythm and sense of gradation, as if from the eminence of a date one could look back and down, and see the past itself. A clear, comprehensible past, divided up into squares of events, lines of paths taken.”
~Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin

Plot summary

“Viktor is an aspiring writer with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life.

But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly turns to terror. He and Misha have been drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape.” More on Goodreads

On Andrey Kurkov

Cover for Death and the Penguin. Photo: gael (CC BY 2.0)
Cover for Death and the Penguin. Photo: gael (CC BY 2.0)
“Ukrainian writer writing in Russian. He was born [in 1961] in small town Budogoszcz in Leningrad area, Russia, but his family moved to Kyiv, Ukraine when he was young. In 1983 he graduated [from the] Kyiv Pedagogical Academy of Foreign Languages. He started writing in age [sic!] of six and he had a hobby of collecting cactuses – he collected nearly 1,500 of them. Ambitiously he wanted to learn their Latin names. Thanks to that he had learned such languages such as English, French, Japanease, Georgian and Polish.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Melancholic escalation into danger
  • Shutting one’s eyes from reality
  • Struggling in a new society

Penguin. Photo: CC0 Public Domain
Penguin. Photo: CC0 Public Domain
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov is a hilarious novel about a very blind man. He is not blind in a literal sense but he refuses to understand the score around him. So he stands on a very thin edge and contemplates whether he should go left or right. But he does not choose, and ultimately the razor-sharp edge starts to cut his feet.

Contract killings, executed journalists, rampaging political corruption and an environment of profound moral chaos fuel the plot of Kurkov’s novel, creating a humourously bleak picture of Ukrainian life. The absurdities of the lifestyles enjoyed by the new mafiosi and the criminal elite are evoked with the cheerful narrative simplicity of a children’s fable. But a glance at the news emerging daily from Ukraine gives a sour edge to the comedy.” (Gentleman 2001)

At times I saw similarities between Kurkov’s novel and Winterstrilogy The Last Policeman. In both instances a pet has a dynamic role in the sanity of its owner. The penguin and the dog are calming elements, maybe even the only characters who could stop things from escalating mentally.

And what of Misha the penguin? In his tuxedolike plumage, quietly standing in the corner of Viktor’s flat waiting for dinner, or even hired out to attend a gangland funeral — he lends dignity to the proceedings, a mobster explains — what does the penguin stand for? Given the associations accompanying his name, we may suspect that he represents the Russian nation, reduced by the dissolution of Communism from the powerfully ursine to the flightlessly avian.” (Kalfus 2001)

The main character Viktor needs slapping in the face to wake up from a false dream of security. His emotional reactions are null, the only time he seems to feel anything at all is in the context to the old penguin researcher that he helps to get medical treatment. Otherwise Viktor’s senses are nulled and he proceeds in a haze of depression.

An interesting contrast in the story is the relationship of Viktor with the girl Sonia whom Viktor sort of adopts but does not adopt. Also in this regard, he refuses to make final decisions and hangs rather in the air of comfort with indecision.

The sad fact is that the realm the novel depicts no longer exists. The post-Soviet phase or layer in Ukraine has been swiped away and is now replaced by a new reality of conflict in the country. Next to mobsters and other criminals, the citizens are currently faced with worsened security outside the borders as well.

I am looking forward to the sequel of the novel. I will dutifully report back to you on the subject of Ukraine and Misha the Penguin once I have finished the second part. First though, I will read The Gardener from Ochakov (2010) which I collected from the city library.

Also, check out this random science article related to penguins 🙂

Other novels and stories by Kurkov
Cover for The Gardener from Ochakov. Photo: fictivestina
Cover for The Gardener from Ochakov. Photo: fictivestina
  • Penguin Lost (1996)
  • The Good Angel of Death (1997)
  • A Matter Of Death And Life (1999)
  • The Case Of The General’s Thumb (2000)
  • The President’s Last Love (2004)
  • The Milkman in the Night (2008)
  • The Gardener from Ochakov (2010)
  • The Bickford Fuse (2011)
  • Ukraine Diaries (2014)

More information
– Amelia Gentleman: A penguin so adds to a funeral, published in the Guardian on 8 April 2001, link retrieved on 13 April 2017
– Ken Kalfus: Open Season, published in The New York Times on 11 November 2001, link retrieved on 13 April 2017
– John Powers: ‘Death And The Penguin’ Captures Post-Soviet Reality, published in the NPR on 24 April 2012, link retrieved on 13 April 2017

“The pure and sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn’t easy to remain entirely honest and upright. Today’s battles were all for material gain, anyway. The crazy idealist was extinct – survived by the crazy pragmatist …”
~Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

2 thoughts on “Review: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov”

  1. Kurkov kiinnostaa kovastikin, mutta suomeksi häneltä ei taida olla kuin juuri tämä kirja. Omassa hyllyssäni odottelee tuo Milkman, tosin ranskaksi, joten sen lukeminen siirtyy aina vaan… Täytyykin pitää silmällä, jos näitä englanninkielisiä osuisi kohdalle!

    Liked by 1 person

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