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Andrey Kurkov: Смерть постороннего (Death and the Penguin)

The book opens with a variant of a joke I think I first heard when I was ten years old. Here is Kurkov’s version:

A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin.
“Take him to the zoo,” he orders.
Some time later the same major is driving along when he sees the militiaman still with the penguin.
“What have you been doing?” he asks. “I said take him to the zoo.”
“We’ve been to the zoo, Comrade Major,” says the militiaman, “and the circus. And now we’re going to the pictures.”

This joke is, in fact relevant to the novel as the title tells us. Viktor Zolotaryov is our hero. He is a would-be writer in Kyiv sometime (but not all that long) after the fall of the Soviet Union. Things are not going well generally but, in particular, they are are not going well for Viktor. He cannot find a job and he has no luck with women. He does, however, have a penguin.

Misha is a real king penguin. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the zoo could no longer afford to feed its animals so it gave then away to anyone who wanted them. Viktor took Misha. Misha lives in Viktor’s flat, eats raw fish and enjoys a swim in Viktor’s bath. Both Viktor and Misha seem reasonably happy with the arrangement.

Viktor submits a story to a newspaper. The editor phones him up, declining the story (Needs a spot more gore, or a kinky love angle). However, he does offer Viktor a job – writing obituaries. Viktor accepts. He will write obituaries, in advance, of celebrities who could die in the not too distant future. He will find who to write about by scouring the press. He starts off with a local politician, Aleksandr Yakornitsky, and interviews him. Then the editor says he should get his information from Fyodor, the crime reporter, as he has all the dirt on the various celebrities.

He writes the obituaries but then the editor refers a friend to him. The friend wants him to write obituaries of friends of his who have died and pays very generously. He is happy to accept. The friend is called Misha. So as not to confuse him with the penguin, he is referred to throughout the book as Misha non-penguin.

Viktor also becomes friends a with Sergey, a local militiaman, and they hang out together. This is looking like being an enjoyable, quirky book till suddenly things change. While Sergey looks after the penguin, Viktor is off to Kharkov to meet the paper’s local representative so that he can prepare obituaries of non-Kyiv celebrities. The representative does not turn up and, back in Kyiv, Viktor finds that he has been killed.

Viktor finally reads his first obituary in the paper and it is that of Aleksandr Yakornitsky. Things get worse as there seems to be a battle in the streets, with one death, giving Viktor his second published obituary. His third is an emergency one of an opera singer with something of a murky past.

Gradually, he and we learn that the various deaths – all violent – are somehow connected to Viktor’s obituaries and the newspaper is seemingly a front for whoever is involved. It gets more complicated when Misha non-penguin brings his young daughter, Sonya, around and tells Viktor that he, Misha, has to disappear and that he, Viktor, has to take care of Sonya… or else. His world was now him, Penguin Misha and Sonya, but so vulnerable did it seem, this little world, that should anything happen, it would be beyond his power to protect it.

The newspaper editor advises Viktor to lie low and Sergey offers his dacha though even there he is not free from violence. Things get more complicated when Viktor is encouraged to attend the funerals of those he has written obituaries for, accompanied by Misha (the penguin). He receives further warnings, Misha (the penguin) seems to be unwell, and Misha (the non-penguin) disappears. Viktor has hired Sergey’s niece, Nina, to look after Sonya but he finds that she and Sonya are frequently approached by a man claiming to be Viktor’s friend.

Viktor is a man who, like many literary heroes and real persons, does not quite fit in and, in particular, cannot cope with the disruptive situation his country faces. An odd country, an odd life which he had no desire to make sense of. To endure, full stop, that was all he wanted.

Misha adds another dimension. Yes, he is a quirky pet and Kurkov certainly plays on this. However, he, too, is someone out of his comfort zone. Viktor meets the penguin expert from the zoo, from whom he learns that penguins can get depressed (like some other animals) but, more particularly, the climate of Kyiv is not suitable for penguins. The cold winters are fine but the hot summers are not. However, his role here is to show a creature who, like Viktor, is unhappy as he is out of his normal, desired habitat. We see this particularly when we see that Misha is at his happiest when he can dive into fishing holes in the frozen Dnieper.

It is a very clever story with the penguin adding a special dimension, both humorous but also very serious. Kurkov is clearly showing that the situation in post-Soviet Ukraine (the story is set in the 1990s) was chaotic with various people taking the law into their own hands and a slew of people – government officials, politicians, the military, businessmen and various celebrities – all up to no good, with violence commonplace.

The main characters – Viktor, Sergey, Sonya, Nina and Misha the penguin – are all ordinary people caught up in an unpleasant situation not of their making and struggling to cope. Kurkov is on the side of the angels of course, but will the angels pull through?

Publishing history

First published in 1996 by Al’terpress
First published in English in 2001 by Harvill
Translated by George Bird