About two years ago while out running errands I happened to hear over my car radio NPR correspondent John Powers’s review of
Fast forward to about a week ago when I found myself meandering through the shelves of fiction at the public library. (A bit of a departure for me, since I usually meander through the shelves of nonfiction. History, religion, memoirs and international relations tends to be the bulk of my reading fare.) Keeping my eyes open for novels by European authors (or at least ones set in Europe) since once again I’m taking part in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, what did I find but a copy of Death and the Penguin. Remembering that this is a book I’ve been wanting to read, I grabbed it. After finishing it yesterday morning I’m glad I did.
Published in 2011 by the good people at Melville International Crime, Death and the Penguin is the story of Viktor and his pet penguin Misha, who he purchases from a local zoo after it becomes too broke to care for its animals. Unsuccessful at getting his fiction published, Viktor’s approached by a Kiev newspaper and offered the job of writing advance obituaries of Ukraine’s rich and powerful. Viktor, who’s happy just to land a paying job in the somewhat impoverished post-Soviet Ukraine, knows it’s common for newspapers and press agencies to stockpile these kind of articles in order to be ready at a moment’s notice should the opportunity afford itself. However, when the subjects of his advance obits start turning up dead, Viktor fears the worst. Is he just a cog in a larger killing machine? Will he suffer the same murderous fate once his services are no longer needed?
I found Kurkov’s novel dark but a bit plodding at times. I also found it funny in places and towards the end even a bit suspenseful. More than a few reviewers thought the novel accurately captured those feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity one probably experiences living in Ukraine, a nation that seems lawless and at the same time authoritarian. Not only did I enjoy Death and the Penguin, I’m looking forward to reading its sequel, Penguin Lost.