Book Review: Death and the Penguin
Updated: May 16
What would happen if a melancholic writer and a penguin were housemates in post-Soviet society? A fair bit of trouble, as it turns out. Death and the Penguin, written by Andrey Kurkov and translated from the Russian by George Bird, is a slow burn of a mystery and one I definitely recommend reading.
Misha the penguin comes into Viktor’s life the way all penguins come into our lives—as a result of heartbreak, economic downturn, and fate:
‘Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a king penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.’
Viktor writes ‘short short stories’ that he brings to Capital News, the local newspaper, in the hope of getting published. However, his talent for prose leads to unexpected attention. Igor Lvovich, the editor-in-chief of Capital News, makes a ‘highly confidential’ offer:
‘What you’d have to do is create, from scratch, an index of obelisk jobs – as we call obituaries – to include deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene – that sort of person – while they’re still alive. But what I want is the dead written about as they’ve never been written about before…’
Much of the plot consists of Viktor writing obituaries and faffing about with Misha the penguin. He rarely finds time to return to his short stories…or does he? His stories take up ‘a single side’ of paper on his typewriter, ‘no more, no less,’ which mirrors the novel’s structure. Death and the Penguin is divided into numbered sections, each just a page or a couple of (A5) pages.
However, Viktor’s ordinary (ish) life is disrupted by Misha-non-penguin (not to be confused with Misha the penguin), an associate of the newspaper that publishes Viktor’s obituaries. Misha-non-penguin brings his daughter Sonya to Viktor’s flat:
‘I’ll stay till morning,” Misha said dully. “And Sonya can live here for a bit…OK? Till things settle down.’
‘What things?’ asked Viktor.
But he received no answer…For just an instant he seemed to detect a flash of hostility in Misha’s eyes.
The next day, Misha-non-penguin is gone, and in his place, a note to Viktor that says, ‘You answer for her with your life.’ Sonya, who has all the cuteness of Boo from Monsters, Inc. immediately befriends Misha the penguin. Too young to be in school, she keeps herself busy by reading fairy stories to the penguin while Viktor sequesters himself away, writing obituaries. And as Viktor finishes obituary after obituary, submitting them to Igor for approval, he begins to notice the frequency with which his subjects die.
One of the reasons I like Death and the Penguin is that almost all of the deaths occur offstage. The book is never gory. In fact, it’s a brilliant mix of anxiety and playfulness. Viktor’s existential and creative angst is offset by the ever-expanding list of penguin-approved foods: coley, plaice, salmon, cod, a banana, and a platter of New Year’s treats, including a small octopus, a starfish, king prawns, and a lobster. The only penguin-rejected food? Live carp that Viktor puts in the bathtub, in a failed attempt to rekindle Misha’s natural appetite.
If you made a mash-up of The New York Times archive and Penguins of Madagascar, you’d get Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin. This book was generously gifted to me by No Alibis in Belfast, as part of its Crime Care Package. You can purchase online credit with No Alibis and order your books for delivery.
Death and the Penguin ends on a cliffhanger; when Misha the penguin falls ill, what lengths will Viktor go to to cure his flippered friend? What is the value of an animal life compared to a human life? I’m eagerly waiting for the sequel, Penguin Lost, to find out what happens to Viktor, Misha, and Sonya.
I hope there’s a happy ending for this unusual family. Perhaps Viktor will get out of the obit business and get back to his short short stories. Perhaps Sonya will find a few more human friends. And hopefully, there will be many more penguin cuddles when the mystery is solved:
‘The door opened, and there stood Penguin Misha. After a moment he came over and snuggled against his master’s knee. Dear creature, thought Viktor…’ Indeed, such a dear creature.
Sending love an ocean away!