Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

‘The less you know the longer you live.’

Come to the Ukraine in the 1990s and meet Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov and his penguin Misha. Viktor buys Misha from the Kiev Zoo when, after suffering even more budget cuts, they are selling their animals. Viktor’s girlfriend has left him, and he needs company. Viktor writes short stories, which he would love to see published. Viktor’s not the first writer who struggles to make a living, so he accepts a paying job identifying the influential and then preparing obituaries for them. After all, the newspaper wants to be prepared. Unsurprisingly (perhaps) some of those famous people die, and more surprisingly (perhaps) Misha is hired to attend their funerals. At least it’s a change for Misha from standing in the corner looking at the wall.

But Viktor’s life becomes complicated. He meets a mobster, non-penguin-Misha. Non-penguin-Misha leaves suddenly, leaving his daughter Sonya with Viktor and Misha. Viktor hires Nina as a nanny for Sonya, and the four of them are a family. For a while.

What can I say about this novel? It’s black, bleak and surreal. Safer, Viktor thinks, not to think about things you don’t understand. One could easily go mad wondering how letters and packages appear in locked apartments. And Misha? He needs lifesaving medical treatment. Viktor has to make some difficult choices.

I first read this novel in 2014 and revisited it in 2018, just before reading ‘Penguin Lost’. It’s both sad and humorous. If you enjoy dark satire with more than a hint of absurdity, you may also enjoy this.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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