Writing obituaries is no easy task. It requires the summation of a life with a word limit. It ultimately must be incomplete, and probably in one way or another untruthful. Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin is about a failed novel writer who falls into writing obituaries for the local newspaper. As the title so succinctly places the emphasis, death and a penguin are the primary concerns.
Death and the Penguin is a great title. Others that went through my head while reading were: “my life as a post-Chernobyl Ukrainian writer,” or “that time I was involved in state-sanctioned murder but didn’t know it, or at least remained suspiciously ignorant,” or “I drank (tea and alcohol) by the gallon while unfeelingly fucking a teenager and writing a little bit.”
Like some writers with a bent for the avian (cough, Franzen, cough), our protagonist Viktor has a thing for birds. Flightless birds, to be exact. Okay, just one bird. Misha (his penguin) is truly Viktor’s spirit animal—they’re both depressed, unsentimental characters, forgotten and forlorn by their country and any potential loved ones. They stare at each other, neither truly enjoying the other’s company, and yet, they are bound together in an odd relationship that can be most affectionately known as sharing the path of lesser evils.
Viktor is hired to write “obelisks” or obituaries for a newspaper. Because the newspaper Chief wants to get ahead of its competitors, Viktor is tasked with writing obituaries for those who are still very much alive. (This is what we readers might call the appearance of a “red flag.”) At first Viktor is allowed to choose his own list of famous people, politicians, and newsmakers to build his library of the eventually deceased. But soon names are given to him to write about, and soon those same names start dying practically before the ink has had time to dry on Viktor’s freshly typed pages. Viktor remains anonymous to readers, writing under the nom de plume, a “Group of Friends.” You know, how your friends write slightly salacious or scandalous things about you for a national media outlet, and then somehow you die.
There are a number of other characters in this lonely novel—a little girl named Sonya who Viktor is basically forced to adopt, the probably underage nanny he hires to look after Sonya and then starts sleeping with, an oafish, kind-hearted militiaman named Sergey, and an old penguinologist (is that a real thing?), among others. But Viktor interacts with them in a way that seems unbefitting of real human relationships. It seems an intentional author choice to do so, but Viktor is such a shell of a man, it doesn’t allow a reader much sympathy for anything. A fine choice to make, but readers might find themselves engaging in more flights of sympathy to the decidedly flightless, tottering penguin Misha.
In his review of the novel, John Powers dubs Death and the Penguin “absurdist noir.” I would tend to agree, though caution that “absurdist” might undercut an important distinction: the absurd in Viktor’s world is almost inseparable from the real in Andrey Kurkov’s. The aspects that seem most ridiculous, most vicious, are often taken from real life: the zoo gives away animals it can no longer feed; the public service sector operates on bribes, politically convenient assassination attempts abound, etc. Your life is only as important as it is to the people who might want to keep you alive and have the power to do so. It’s also the 1990s. But the world Viktor lives in seems divorced from any world of the 90’s that an American reader would identify. The “dark humor” in Death and the Penguin is not just a matter of fictive engineering on the author’s part, but also a highly effective exercise in tragi-comic memory.
– Michelle Lipinski
Death and the Penguin is translated from Russian by George Bird.