Death and the Penguin

By Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin is a book that hooked me right away – not because I’m a particularly big fan of cartoonish flightless birds but because of the note of sadness that the novel immediately strikes. Aspiring author Viktor Zolotaryov is going nowhere plying the world’s most solitary trade, and has been abandoned by his girlfriend. Feeling lonely, he adopts a penguin named Misha from a bankrupt zoo. This act of charity, however, doesn’t improve his situation, as “Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.”

Single pet owners will instantly relate, especially as Misha the penguin turns out to have a remarkably dog-like personality. But there’s more. Viktor’s loneliness is compounded even further by the grim fact of where he lives. The novel takes place in post-Soviet Kiev, an independent Ukraine being something Viktor has to remind his new girlfriend about when she objects to the customs duty on a package from Moscow “as if it’s from abroad” (“We are abroad,” he gloomily responds). Welcome to a primitive backwater where health care is purchased by bribes, Viktor has to pound out newspaper copy on a typewriter, and dinner seems to mainly consist of things that can be boiled (tea, potatoes, polonies). Modern amenities like computers and microwaves don’t seem to be available, and a colour TV (as if there were any other kind!) is a big deal.

I remind you that this is the mid-1990s.

The Soviet Union has suffered a relationship breakdown as well, and Viktor (raised by his grandmother after his parents split up and went their separate ways) feels divorced from a “recent but already so far distant past of a country that no longer existed.” Approaching a mid-life crisis, the same can be, and is, said of his writing: “His prose was, in fact, all in a distant past – a past so distant as to raise a doubt as to whether it was his past at all.” A faux-family is quickly formed – Viktor, Misha, a little girl who is dropped in Viktor’s lap and a nanny who becomes his lover – but the others just seem to add bricks to the wall of Viktor’s solitude and he confesses to having no genuine feelings for them. Eventually he even winds up indulging the insomniac’s pastime of spying on the lighted windows of the neighbouring apartments to see what the other night owls are up to, and succumbing to the paranoia (here translated as “persecution mania”) of the true solitary.

This all may sound rather downbeat, and there’s no denying Viktor is aware of the thick ugliness surrounding his life. A lot of this stems from an almost surreal fantasy plot where the living obituaries he is writing for the local paper become death warrants signed by mysterious criminal organizations. Still, he is determined to maintain a core integrity in the midst of all this madness, a sacred space of self:

A week had now passed with Viktor hammering away at his typewriter and rejoicing in spring and sunshine. And life seemed easy and carefree, despite painful moments and less frequent scruples over his own part in an ugly business. But what, in an ugly world, was ugly? No more than a tiny part of an unknown evil existing generally, but not personally touching him and his little world. And not to be fully aware of his part in that ugly something was clearly a guarantee of the indestructibility of his world, and its tranquility.

In an ugly world suffused with an unknown evil, perhaps the best that can be achieved is just such a personal oasis of calm. It is, in any event, a necessary myth for someone as divorced from the rest of humanity as Viktor.

It’s typical for a novel that explores themes like these to end by affirming or at least reaching toward a sense of connectedness. I’m not giving too much away when I say that’s not what happens here (and since the book has a sequel it’s not the end of the story anyway). Viktor is a man alone, surrounded by people who seem progressively more unreal as he himself becomes more penguin-like. When the unknown evil begins to intrude into his little world there’s really only one place left to go.

Review first published online August 22, 2011.

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