Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

It was generally agreed that this book had the most intriguing title of the books the book club did (and we have had titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). It was also agreed that the writing style made the book a deceptively ‘easy’ read (and easy to forget that it was a translation), and that made readers want to get acquainted with more of the author’s writing.

The discussion seemed to naturally divide itself  into

  • the book’s tone/atmosphere
  • standout scenes
  • Misha the penguin.

The atmosphere in the book is sinister and mysterious, and at the end of the book many questions remain unanswered and shrouded in mystery. Why do the people whose ‘obelisks’ Viktor writes get bumped off? Why does Misha-the-penguin need to be at the funerals of strangers? How are people able to get into Viktor’s house even though the doors are locked? What happens to Sonya after Viktor leaves – does she adjust quietly as she has to so many previous losses and sudden departures? And, as some readers wondered: Is Misha real, or merely Viktor’s ‘conscience’?

At the same time, by providing more questions than answers, the sense of actually living through the unsettled and difficult time becomes more vivid. The book’s setting is especially topical at the moment given the current political climate; it also helped make sense of Viktor’s feeling of isolation as a Russian in Ukraine at a similarly unsettled time. A member of the book club, who has first-hand experience of visiting the area, as well as a friend who still lives in the area, spoke of the crumbling of community spirit in an increasingly hostile and untrusting environment. Apart from telling details like an erstwhile scientist being unable to afford to feed himself even a meagre diet of potatoes, this is something the book also evokes by telling readers of Viktor’s utter aloneness in the world. He has no family; during the novel he is very briefly part of a ‘pretend family’. He is also utterly friendless until Misha the penguin becomes the reason he meets his only real friend, Sergey Fischbein (who in turn introduces him to Nina who becomes his accidental girlfriend – it was agreed that the loveless, passionless relationship where money discussions remain most important was not the strongest part of the book). The book also refers repeatedly to Viktor’s depression and his fairly regular drinking, which were thought to feed into his not realising until almost too late, despite telling discoveries he makes about how his writing is used, that the ‘protection’ he has come to take for granted has turned against him once his usefulness is deemed past.

And yet, the gloom is not unrelieved. One of the scenes that was discussed fondly was the picnic during which Misha plopped deep into the ice, entertaining himself, and convincing a drunk fisherman he had taken leave of his senses. Another, albeit shortlived cheerful moment is the new year visit to Sergey’s dacha, until a gruesome murder takes place (and reminds everyone of the reason that has taken them to the dacha to the first place). The ending divided the book club; some thought it was positive, in that Viktor was able to escape those who were about to kill him. On the other hand, it was sad for the others that he was separated from the penguin who had been his constant companion ever since he rescued him from the defunct zoo.

This led to two schools of thought regarding the penguin. For some readers the penguin was a real animal, who, despite being referred to as depressed, provided some of the most comforting (quiet) moments in the book, ate his frozen fish regularly, went plop-plopping through the house, got sick from going to one too many funeral in bad weather, and was eventually apparently fitted with a human heart.

Others pointed out though that depression was a trait that Misha shared with Viktor, and his clean, non-animal presence in the flat could believably be interpreted as him being Viktor’s conscience. This was a viewpoint strengthened by the novel’s closing sentence when after a surreal night of alcohol-fuelled gambling wins, Viktor shows up claiming to be a penguin himself. Metaphorically or literally? On this, as about so much, the book is silent.

A reader got as far as a casting choice for the film version of this book: Ewan McGregor as Viktor. Nominations for other roles are welcome. 🙂

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