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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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1,284546,108 (3.72)86
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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English (47)  French (4)  Danish (2)  Dutch (1)  All languages (54)
Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
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 |
Andrey Kurkov is very popular in Ukraine, and began his career borrowing money to self-publish his first books which he then sold on the sidewalks of Kiev, a city I love. So I truly wanted to like this book, as many others do, but sadly it fell short for me.

The premise is certainly original: a frustrated author gets a job writing obituaries for important people before they’re dead, including dirt on them that’s provided to him, and then finds that shortly afterwards they start turning up dead, through “accidents” and “suicides”. He’s a lonely guy living on his own, at least at the beginning of the book, except for a pet penguin he’s picked up from the local zoo. The book is thus about corruption and the absurdity of life in post-Soviet Kiev. Viktor, the writer, is isolated and the existential hero, trying to make his way and find meaning in a meaningless, violent world. “…life around him was still dangerously unfathomable, as if he had missed the actual moment when the nature of events might have been fathomed.”

The humor is meant to be “dark” but it’s not funny to me, moreover the book is largely uneventful, and the writing is too simple. Yes, “bleak” and “deadpan” as I read the adjectives on the back cover, but for me, somewhat boring. It recovers a bit with the ending, but not enough to recommend it, or to press on to the sequel.

As for quotes, just this one:
“Sonya cried. The rain rained on. An unfinished obelisk protruded from the typewriter, but Viktor didn’t feel like work. Legs against the hot radiator, he stood at the bedroom window, tears welling, as if in chain reaction to Sonya’s, and through his tears, watched raindrops doing their best to cling to the glass. The wind set them quivering and away they shot finally, only to be replaced by fresh drops, and continue the senseless battle with the wind.” ( )
3 vote gbill | Jan 12, 2014 |
bookshelves: books-about-books-and-book-shops, one-penny-wonder, paper-read, slavic, amusing, translation, gangsters, zoology, ukraine, kiev, lifestyles-deathstyles, autumn-2013
Read from November 21 to 28, 2013

Strapline: In today's Ukraine, all that stands between one man and murder by the Mafia is a penguin.

Translated from the Russian by George Bird.

Dedication: For the Sharps, in gratitude

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."

Opening: First, a stone landed a metre from Viktor's foot. He glanced back. Two louts stood grinning, one of whom stooped, picked up another from a section of broken cobble, and bowled it at him skittler-fashion.

The local zoo closes down bit by bit so they advertise for any member of the public to come around and take away a pet. Our protagonist Viktor, the obituary writer, chooses a King Penguin called Misha.

Misha is a depressed penguin.

Victors new friend introduces himself as Misha, so our Viktor mentally dubs him Misha-not-a-penguin.

Told in dead-pan mode, this is a quirky gangster story.
Solid! 3.5* ( )
  mimal | Jan 1, 2014 |
Although it was billed as a crime novel, I saw politics so I must have projected my own current thinking and reading all over this book! Oh wait - crime....politics.....same thing perhaps? Another reviewer saw it as a gang war. I saw revolution. Oh wait - crime, politics, revolution? Hmmmm.....well, here's what I saw: a lonely somewhat isolated man who has a generous impulse to rescue and adopt a penguin. Other people begin to come into his life through interaction with the penguin on walks, etc. Who could not stop and ask? Vik ends up with a job and a family of sorts as well as assorted friendships. The job involves writing obituaries for living people who end up dead, which is not exactly in line with Vik's ambition as a writer,but he excels at it. He eventually realizes the people he writes about are being killed and he has to examine his part in that. I am writing this in 2013 in the U.S. when bankers and politicians and military figures are badly misbehaving (!) and corrupt and I see revolution in this novel as these are the figures who are killed off.

Vik is torn between concern that he is part of murder and the comfort he has developed with his new life of financial security, home and family. Does he really want to know how his actions effect society? That might mean giving up his newfound comfort. Boy can I relate to that. Can I really continue living peacefully in my nice safe little community while my country is bombing others? Remaining unaware can seem blissful and be very comfortable.

I see that NPR has interviewed the author about this book so I'm now off to see what his book was really about. Be back in a minute.

Hmmmm......well if I told you, that would be a spoiler! ( )
6 vote mkboylan | Nov 16, 2013 |
To be honest, the title, Death and the Penguin, completely perked my interest. With such a interesting title, the book must be just as weird, in a good way. Something about this book had me hooked and I finished it within one or two days. Andrey Kurkov blended such dark and despairing elements of death and poverty with the comedic relief of a sad little penguin named Misha and many other little side trips and events. What came out of it this mesh was a quirky little novel that creates a perfect balance between sorrow and joy.

Death and the Penguin is the story of a man named Viktor. He's a writer who finds himself unable to sell his short stories to publishers and can not focus on writing lengthy novels. He meets the editor of a local newspaper company and is hired to write obituaries (obelisks) for important people before they have died. Viktor takes this job seriously and soon learns he is a natural. The most interesting thing about his life is his pet, a small little penguin named Misha. Misha used to live in the local zoo before they had to give them away due to monetary problems and Viktor happened to pick him up. The two develop a very close bond, almost a friendship yet not one in a traditional sense. Their relationship is one of dependence: Misha needs Viktor to provide him with food and shelter while Viktor needs Misha as a companion in his lonely life as a writer. Viktor ends up meeting many new people and finds himself in a situation that is both harmful to him and Misha.

For some reason, I couldn't exactly pin down what makes Death and the Penguin such an interesting book. Something about this book deeply appealed to me and I really couldn't stop and put it down. Something about the characters just fit into a little niche that proved to be very entertaining. On one hand, we have Viktor, the sullen and lonely man of the house. Next we have Misha, the random pet penguin who seems to hold everything together. The other characters of the book all add their own unique experience and flavor as they come and go through the story. The book takes place in a dreary little town in Ukraine. This provided the perfect backdrop for the dark sense and humor of the book.

The evolution of both the characters and the environment both work in tandem to create a story that is ever changing while still staying the same. It all revolves around Viktor and Misha. The world around them changes as he meets new people and as the suspicious deaths of dignitaries and other notables begin to impact his life. It creates a sense of reality, in where the story in anchored down by a few characters, just like in our lives where we always look out at the changing world while finding solace in the stability of our personal lives. But this reality is somewhat dampened by the presence of the random pet penguin. For some reason, This single character changes the whole feel of Death and the Penguin. Something about including a pet penguin calls into question the very nature of the book and brings a sort of comedic vibe and perks your curiosity.

Death and the Penguin is very hard to review. I definitely liked the book, but the reason why is almost intangible and impossible to really talk about. This is a book that you really have to read to understand why it is such a good novel. Kurkov somehow got the different characters and events in the book to mesh together to create a coherent, yet somewhat insane sort of story. ( )
2 vote Plyte | Oct 6, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 47 (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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