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Death and the Penguin (Panther) by Andrey…

Death and the Penguin (Panther) (original 1996; edition 2002)

by Andrey Kurkov, George Bird (Translator)

Series: Penguin (1)

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1,325585,869 (3.73)97
Title:Death and the Penguin (Panther)
Authors:Andrey Kurkov
Other authors:George Bird (Translator)
Info:The Harvill Press (2002), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 230 pages
Collections:Read but unowned, Stewart's Read
Tags:Y02, fiction

Work details

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (1996)

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» See also 97 mentions

English (51)  French (4)  Danish (2)  Dutch (1)  All languages (58)
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
I had a good time with Death and the Penguin by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, ably translated from the Russian. Set in an up-for-grabs Kiev, it's funny and relatively short, with dark humor and intrinsic criticisms of post-Soviet life. Despite the title, it not a mystery; I've seen it called absurdist noir.

Viktor is an unemployed writer living with his penguin, Misha, who he obtained when the local zoo closed. Misha is not a literary gimmick, but a legitimate soulmate filled with affection and melancholy. Out of the blue Viktor gets a job writing obituaries for a local paper, and finally has some money. However, what he is asked to write may have a more sinister purpose. He fills the obituaries with his personal touch, including poetic prose and philosophy. When an opera singer dies, he writes:

"The voice of Yuliya Parkhomenko is now silent. But so long as the walls of the Mariynsky Palace endure, and the splendour of the National Opera is reflected in the gold of its inner cupola, she will abide as a golden haze dissolved upon the air we breathe. Her voice will be the gilding of the silence she has left behind."

Viktor gets drawn into involvement with suspect types, who also have a role for Misha to play. Somehow, he winds up taking care of a little girl named Sonya and hiring a nanny to whom he becomes close. The content is often surreal, but delivered matter-of-factly and with wit. There is an indictment of corruption and lawlessness delivered with a velvet glove. Beneath the story is an always-present resignation and determination to survive that I associate with many Russian authors.

"The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what might."

Viktor is a decent man dealing with often difficult circumstances, with the help of friends he makes along the way, including a surprisingly honest policeman. The writing style made me think of Gogol, but it moves even faster. I'll be reading more by Kurkov, and I'm hoping he becomes better known on this side of the Atlantic and elsewhere. ( )
3 vote jnwelch | Oct 10, 2015 |
This was cute and definitely one of the most unique ideas I have come across for a plot (and it was also Jane's Forcening pick for me). The only real issue (and it's not even really an issue) was that I was always very aware I was reading something in translation -- there were many times when I could almost feel that something was very clever or funny, except because I'm not Russian, I couldn't figure it out. It made me wish I was Russian so I would get more of the subtle layers going on here. (Or who knows, maybe in Russia, it isn't even that subtle!) ( )
  delphica | Jun 10, 2015 |
Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov is an unemployed aspiring writer struggling to live in a post-soviet society. He has aspirations to write novels but a job writing obituaries conveniently fell into his lap. Viktor’s job is to prepare obituaries for notable Ukrainian figures. However he quickly found out he was being assigned to write obituaries of the enemies of an unknown organisation, using the newspaper as a front. He is now trapped in a situation and there appears to be no escape.

The title of this book refers to Viktor’s job and his pet king penguin, Misha. The Kiev zoo had run out of money and could no long afford to support or feed the animals. Their solution was to give the pets to any citizen able to feed them in the hope they will care for the animals. Andrey Kurkov uses Misha to mirror Viktor Zolotaryov. An existential look into life imitating art and the balance between life and death.

Death and the Penguin is a dark comedy and political satire that portrays a bleak post-Soviet Ukraine to the reader. Kurkov takes a pragmatic approach with exploring morality. The idea of writing a mournful article in case a politician or socialite dies suddenly in exchange for money offers a morbid look at mortality but that is not enough for Andrey Kurkov and he wants to talk about politics and corruption. “People have got used to the corruption. People here are flexible and they accept the new rules and don’t dwell on moral questions. They just watch what everyone else is doing and try to find their own ways of deceiving others to make money for themselves to survive”

The Kiev Kurkov portrays is one driven by greed and corruption. A place where bribes have to be handed out before an ambulance will come and take a dying man to hospital. However, once at the hospital the staff can offer no medicines to ease the pain, let alone a cure. A place where money rules and the gangster underworld are offering a practical solution into solving corruption. Turning this society into a place where organised crime and political corruption seem to be ruling in tandem.

What really stuck with me was the parallels between Viktor and Misha’s life. Starting from struggling to feeling trapped, Misha’s life mimicked Viktor’s own life. Also Misha helped provide a contrast with Victor’s plot; exploring ideas of life and death simultaneously. While people are dying due to the hit list, Viktor struggles to keep Misha alive in an environment that is not suitable for a king penguin. These parallels and contrast make up the back-bone of the book and what really cemented my love for this novel.

Death and the Penguin is a wonderful satire that combines elements of the surreal and existential. I really enjoyed the dark comedy and the themes Andrey Kurkov explored within this novel. There is a sequel to the book called Penguin Lost which I plan to read but I have no idea how this story could continue. As part of my Russian lit project, I plan to explore a lot more post-Soviet literature and if this is anything to go by, I know I will discover some great novels.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2015/05/26/death-and-the-penguin-by-andrey-kurko... ( )
  knowledge_lost | May 28, 2015 |
Could be spoilers. Wow, a lot of people have added this book! I liked it pretty well. It didn't make any sense. I worried about Misha-the-Penguin. There is an awful lot of people being killed, but I guess that is a big part of the point about life in the modern Ukraine. This book seemed very east-european to me. Kurkov is writing within a cultural tradition, but I also wonder if he did it on purpose. Viktor was kind of a cypher, which, again, is probably the point.
  franoscar | Apr 14, 2015 |
I don't think I'd have ended up reading Death and the Penguin without a little challenge I'm doing to read twenty books recommended by friends. (It took me a while to get my twenty, but maybe now I should post them or make a shelf for them or something.) It's interesting, though. I'm not generally very good at politics and satire, particularly when I'm not very aware of the historical context, but this is enjoyable anyway.

You see, the penguin is not metaphorical. Viktor literally has a pet penguin who lives with him. Honestly, that was my main motivation in reading on: I didn't care so much for Viktor, but Misha is really compelling for all that he's the only character who never says a word. The other absurd elements of the plot somehow only work for me because of Misha.

It's simply written, easy to follow despite the absurdities -- the person who recommended it to me said it's a good Russian lit for beginners type book. I'd agree; I mean, I love War and Peace, but I can understand it being rough going for some people, and Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment took me forever. I do recommend this: the relationship between Misha and Viktor is sweet and somehow melancholy, a mutual loneliness. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 7, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
What they might approximate for the curious reader, however, is what it’s like to sit for a long late evening with a genial and gifted storyteller as he leads you through the most ancient and, in many ways, still most pleasurable functions of literature — making us wonder what on earth is going to happen next.
The novel's hero, Viktor Zolotaryov, is a frustrated writer whose short stories are too short and too sensation-free to be published. When a newspaper editor offers him a new job as star obituarist, paying $300 a month to write 'snappy, pithy, way-out' pieces, he agrees. His brief is to select powerful figures from Ukrainian high society and prepare mournful articles in readiness for the possibility that they might suddenly die.

But then the unexpected death of a senior politician after falling from a sixth-floor window triggers a clan war of killings and Viktor's obituaries are suddenly in demand. It is only later, when he discovers that his pieces are neatly filed in the editor's office - marked with dates for imminent publication although their subjects remain alive - that he becomes uncomfortable about his role in the eruption of violence unsettling the city.

The obituarist assumes a pragmatic approach to the uneasy morality of his work - accepting the money and getting on with it. This approach is one which Kurkov believes many Ukrainians have been forced to adopt, and his book is free of any censure for the way characters behave. 'People have got used to the corruption. People here are flexible and they accept the new rules and don't dwell on moral questions. They just watch what everyone else is doing and try to find their own ways of deceiving others to make money for themselves to survive,' he says.

Viktor's blossoming career is watched with melancholic disapproval by the gloomy figure of his pet penguin, Misha, adopted a few months earlier from the impoverished city zoo. In the cynical atmosphere of post-communist Kiev, the penguin is the only being which inspires in Viktor real affection.

The silent, sad penguin is the key to understanding the novel as a portrayal of post-Soviet chaos, says Kurkov. 'The penguin is a collective animal who is at a loss when he is alone. In the Antarctic, they live in huge groups and all their movements are programmed in their brains so that they follow one another. When you take one away from the others he is lost.

'This is what happened to the Soviet people who were collective animals - used to being helped by one another. With the collapse of the Soviet Union suddenly they found themselves alone, no longer felt protected by their neighbours, in a completely unfamiliar situation where they couldn't understand the new rules of life.'
added by VivienneR | editThe Guardian, Amelia Gentleman
Viktor, an impoverished writer and penguin-owner in modern-day Kiev, gets lucky when a local newspaper editor hires him to compose a series of obituaries of still living Ukrainian notables. But when his subjects start dying and acquaintances disappearing, it becomes clear that Viktor is involved in something sinister and he's better off not asking questions.

» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Andrey Kurkovprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bird, GeorgeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vogel, ChristaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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."
For the Sharps, in gratitude
First words
First, a stone landed a metre from Viktor's foot.
But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary loneliness, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.
Everyone was in a hurry, as if afraid of finding their block on the verge of collapsing or shedding its balconies - both occurrences being no longer uncommon.
No. The pure and sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn't easy to remain entirely honest and upright. Today's battles were all for material gain, anyway. The crazy idealist was extinct - survived by the crazy pragmatist...
To every time, its own normality. The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what might.
The past believed in dates. And everyone's life consisted of dates, giving life a rhythm and sense of gradation,as if from the eminence of a date one could look back and down, and see the past itself. A clear, comprehensible past, divided up into squares of events, lines of paths taken.
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Book description
Viktor is lonely, having only Misha, his penguin, for company. He is also desperate, trying to earn a living as a writer. Until one day he gets his long-awaited break: the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper commissions Viktor to write obituaries of Kiev's VIPs - to be kept on file. The job pays well and Viktor's luck seems complete when the editor-in-chief sends along a friend who needs Viktor to compose an obituary of one of his associates. This friend, also called Misha, turns out to be a Mafia operative with a big heart. Viktor confides to Misha-non-penguin that he longs to see his work published, even if under a pseudonym, but he subjects of his obituaries cling to life...A few days later he opens the newspaper to find his work in print for the fist time. His pride swiftly turns to terror as he and his penguin are drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape. This humorous, moving portrait of the troubled country of contrasts which is today's Ukraine, while in the tradition of Mikhail Bulgakov, is an original and penetrating development of that tradition.
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In the prequel to Penguin Lost, aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov leads a down-and-out life in poverty-and-violence-wracked Kiev--he's out of work and his only friend is a penguin, Misha, that he rescued when the local zoo started getting rid of animals. Even more nerve-wracking: a local mobster has taken a shine to Misha and wants to keep borrowing him for events. But Viktor thinks he's finally caught a break when he lands a well-paying job at the Kiev newspaper writing "living obituaries" of local dignitaries--articles to be filed for use when the time comes. The only thing is, it seems the time always comes as soon as Viktor writes the article. Slowly understanding that his own life may be in jeopardy, Viktor also realizes that the only thing that might be keeping him alive is his penguin.… (more)

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