Translated by George Bird
Death and the Penguin isn’t a new novel: I first read it around 2001, when it appeared in English translation, and I’ve gone back to it in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although it deals of course not with current events but with the ruptures and recalibrations of the immediate post-Soviet period (it was first published in Russian in 1996).
The Kyiv in Death and the Penguin, then, is not the war-battered Kyiv of today, or the more cosmopolitan, confident and European-facing Kyiv of the 2014-22 era. Instead it is a cheerfully bleak, surreal and morally compromised Kyiv that is adapting to the absurdities of independence, unmoored from the collective certainties of the USSR.
Viktor is an aspiring short-story writer who lives alone except for his gloomy King Penguin, Misha, acquired the year before when the animals were sold off by the bankrupt local zoo. Viktor approaches a local newspaper office looking for work, and to his surprise is offered a freelance job composing obituaries (‘obelisks‘) of local notables on his home typewriter.
Soon, however, he notices that strange things are happening. People keep dying, almost as soon as he’s handed in their completed obituary to the newspaper chief, and he senses that he’s becoming embroiled in a dangerous situation that he doesn’t quite understand.
The Editor-in-Chief greeted Viktor cordially, as if he hadn’t seen him for a year. Coffee, cognac and $100 in a long elegant envelope made their appearance. It was quite a celebration.
“Well,” said Igor Lvovich, raising his glass of cognac, “a start’s been made. Let’s hope our remaining obelisks don’t hang around for long either.”
“How did he die?” Viktor asked.
“Fell from a sixth floor window – was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night.”
Viktor is unquestioning, fatalistic, or simply pragmatic: his uneasiness is compensated for by his sudden wealth, particularly as his fees are significantly inflated when he starts being regularly invited to attend funerals in a professional capacity, formally flanked by his perpetually mournful penguin.
What’s more, his loneliness is cured, too, as he meets friendly militiamen and penguinologists, acquires a little orphaned sort-of daughter and even an accidental live-in girlfriend. But we know that an ersatz family life can’t be what fate ultimately has lined up for Viktor.
Kurkov has suggested that the penguin represents the fish-out-of-water alienation and isolation of people during the uncertain transitions of the post-soviet period. Misha is endearingly expressive though as a character in his own right, with an implacable stare, a special spot behind the sofa where he goes to stand when he’s in a mood, and a fondness for a bathtub full of cold water and fish straight from the freezer.
… But roaming the dark corridor, banging every so often against the closed kitchen door, was Misha the penguin. Overcome at last with a feeling of guilt, Viktor let him in. Misha paused at the table, using his almost one metre of height to see what was on it. He looked at the cup of tea, then shifting his gaze to Viktor, considered him with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldy-wise Party functionary.
If Death and Penguin can by now be considered a historical novel of sorts, grounded as it is the Ukraine of 30 years ago, Kurkov has become a prominent political commentator as well as a novelist. He has written in his fiction about the recent conflict in the Donbas (in Grey Bees, published in 2021), while he’s currently providing a weekly personal commentary on the impact of the current full-scale war with Russia on BBC Radio 4.