This review is a bit of a challenge to write — not because I did not like Death and the Penguin, but because I am not really sure why I liked it. It is not in my comfort zone as far as fiction genres go (fantasy, science fiction, and/or humor), but rather is a sort of mystery dealing with post-Soviet era life, crime, politics, and relationships. However, for some fortuitous reason it caught my eye, and I decided to sample it — and it was on sale for $3.19.
Death and the Penguin was written by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (translated to English by George Bird). I think one part of the attraction of this book for me is the view of post-Soviet life in Kiev, told by someone who lived it. Other attractions were the clever, original plot along with the understated yet interesting characters. Many of those characters, including the protagonist, were essentially common people, caught up in the tangled web of events that brought them together and generally reacting in what would seem the almost stereotypical Slavic attitude of simply coping as best they could.
Then there is Misha the penguin (not to be confused with Misha-Not-a-Penguin) who at first seems a curious affectation within the story, and eventually becomes an important plot element. As the story went on, I started to feel at times that Misha was also an avatar of the reader: watching the other characters join the dance around Viktor, the aspiring writer and protagonist, and sometimes exiting stage left or right, often under mysterious circumstances.
Ultimately, I suspect I was pulled into this book so effectively due to something in the tone and underlying (and understated) themes resonating with me to a large extent. That sense of alienation many of us feel when trying to understand how we fit into the world at large, the temptation to just get by and not think too deeply about what we may be sacrificing to do so, feeling helpless at the hands of those in greater power — in other words: most of us “average people.”
Kurkov’s prose was generally terse yet effective, presenting Viktor’s story with efficient imagery and a minimum of sentimentality, yet sprinkled here and there with slightly more extended musings that made me pause to think.
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.
(Location 2432 of the Kindle edition)
I’m not sure if Death and the Penguin should be classified as a dark, somewhat satirical mystery or perhaps a surrealistic character study; but I am pretty sure it can be classified as something you ought to at least sample. I suppose I’ll be downloading the sample for Penguin Lost soon and see if I want to put it on my birthday wish-list.