Thursday, September 24, 2009

Just finished: Death and the Penguin

Today I finished Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov, one of the books recommended by Nick Hornby in The Polysyllabic Spree. It's been a while since I've read any Russian novels. As broad generalizations go, they definitely have a unique feel to them, and when they're mildly decipherable I do enjoy them. One of the best aspects of this book was that it was a fast read with extremely short chapters and unsentimental prose. I do like descriptive, sentimental prose, but this was a nice change.

The story takes place in Kiev and focuses on a kind of loser of a guy named Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov. [Thankfully this book was no War and Peace withmillions of Russian names all attributed to the same person.] Viktor is an uninspired aspiring writer who never finishes much except for short stories that are too short to publish. The only consistent being in his life is his pet penguin Misha who he took in when the zoo was giving away animals it could not feed. How in the world Kurkov created this waddling pet and made him seem real is pretty great. Viktor and Misha are both melancholy, lonely characters who lack direction. However, the monotony of their lives begins to change after Viktor submits one of his story to a local newspaper. The editor calls him in for a job: to write obituaries for people who are not dead yet. While odd, this seems straight forward enough until the people on the list start dying at which point all sorts of mysteries and complications arise. I don't want to give away the whole story so I'll stop there.

While darkly comic, unemotional, and distinctly satirical, Death and the Penguin does make for some interesting character analysis. Viktor is mostly friendless and has such pitiful ambition that it's hard to feel sorry for him at times, yet his one loyalty to Misha--a clear parallel to himself--makes the would-be writer a more compelling and sympathetic character...on one hand. On the other hand, he willing ignores almost every difficult or dangerous situation he faces up to the very end and the last line [slight spoiler] seems a final selfish act of self-preservation that may be a concrete slab of ultimate loneliness. However clever the last statement, Viktor was a little disappointing when it came down to it--his actions careless and irrational. I closed the book wondering if I might be missing something crucial. I still recommend the book wholeheartedly for its originality and the fact that its written in and about a country far away from America [unlike most of the books I read.]

By the way, it's got a great cover.

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