Not that long after The Wall fell I had the opportunity to travel to Siberia. It was summer, the weather was fine, the people friendly and intelligent. Omsk, where I spent a few nights, was different. My memory is of grey, non-descript buildings, huge and monotonous on wide roads and of flats, tiny and basic with no discernible difference between one block and the next. It was as I’d imagined Winston Smith’s world in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. I’d deliberately forgotten about Omsk until getting my hands on a copy of Patrick McGuinness’ excellent novel set at the end of Ceausescu’s reign in Romania, ‘The Last Hundred Days’ and it was Omsk I thought of again as I started to read ‘Death and the Penguin’ by Ukranian novelist Andrey Kurkov.
The novel, translated from the Russian by George Bird (an apposite name I suppose), follows the lonely Viktor, a struggling writer of short stories that are ‘too short to make a living from’. However, the money soon comes rolling in as he earns a contract writing obituaries for a newspaper. The obituaries are written in advance of the subject’s death under the pseudonym ‘A Group of Friends’ so Viktor’s work remains unpublished as he remains ‘to his occasional anxiety’, unrecognised. Soon the subjects die, the work is published and Viktor’s life becomes enmeshed in the dark underworld of post-Soviet Ukraine.
Oh, and there’s a penguin. A real penguin. As the zoo was no longer able to feed some animals, there was an opportunity to house one and abandoned by his girlfriend the previous week, Viktor came home one day with Misha, a king penguin. One of the elements of humour that Kurkov uses is the way that Misha’s existence is taken for granted, described as a dog or a cat might have been. He goes for walks, rides in taxis, enjoys a bath. But he doesn’t alleviate Viktor’s loneliness. Indeed, Misha ‘brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses’.
That sense of loneliness and isolation is at the heart of the novel hinted at in that pseudonym, ‘A Group of Friends’. Viktor has none at the beginning and even as he enjoys others’ company later on, he remains detached, alone. There’s a further irony in that name as well. Society, and the obituaries’ publication, is ruled by the mafia, a group of ‘friends’ always on the edges of the novel and of Viktor’s life. However, this is not a depressing read. The narrative is handled brilliantly as events of catastrophic horror for some is presented in the same tone as someone reaching for a bottle of vodka. And what sustains it all are the observations of the absurdity of life, the dark humour and the beautiful way the seasons are used to frame the novel and to offer a glimmer of hope.
Despite being a real penguin, Misha is also clearly a metaphor. Kurkov himself says that, ‘The penguin is a collective animal who is at a loss when he is alone.’ He is also used to show the level of corruption in this new, independent nation, not just by those in power but by everyone. This is no surprise. Apart from football, the only time we hear of Ukraine is of political corruption and contract killings. And there’s a sadness to all of this despite the humour. In a novel that’s hard to categorise, a shot rings out but is ignored; a man who has stepped on a mine is discovered and no-one does anything, apart from a dog who runs away with an arm (I told you there was dark humour); obituaries of those who are alive and well are given publication dates which are met by editor and the subject alike. This is a thriller, a comedy, a political satire. Most of all, this is an entertaining, if ultimately bleak read. It made me think of Omsk which brought a chill to my spine. But it also made me laugh, albeit with a heavy heart.
‘Death and the Penguin’ by Andrey Kurkov is published by Vintage Books.