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death and the penguin

31 january 2012

While plodding through Anna Karenina at the rate of 25 pages per day, it occurred to me that the most recent Russian fiction I'd read was novels by Vassily Aksyonov (The Burn, The Island of Crimea), and that was over 20 years ago. I zoomed over to Wikipedia to see their recommendations for post-Soviet fiction in Russian, to find that they were pretty big on Vassily Aksyonov. Given my predilection for novels from places like Finland, Estonia, and Albania, you'd think I could find something recent to read from one of the great literary traditions, but newer Russian fiction hasn't been well-publicized or marketed in English translation, at least not well enough to penetrate my well-swaddled ignorance.

Amazon.com, however, will suggest anything, and their robots decided I should be reading Andrey Kurkov. Kurkov, strictly speaking, is a Ukranian writer, but though his milieu is Kiev, his birth and language are Russian, and his slate of allusions encompasses Russian literature. (A memorable scene in Death and the Penguin is set in a cancer ward, one imagines in homage to Solzhenitsyn.)

Death and the Penguin, however, reminded me more of various stray analogues in other literatures than anything else in Russian. Kurkov's Ukraine is a nation of bleak post-Soviet organized crime and settling of scores, like Sofi Oksanen's Estonia in Purge. Death and the Penguin is highly reminiscent of Arto Paasilinna's Year of the Hare: a directionless midlife man in a dull career befriends an enigmatic animal and gets into bizarre adventures. The animal, naturally, is a penguin, and it lives in Viktor Alekseyevich's apartment, which made me think of Mr Popper's Penguins. (Much of the logistics of keeping penguins at home in a temperate clime resemble those in the Atwaters' children's classic.) And in a very fortuitous twist, a central element of Death and the Penguin is echoed in Jack Gantos's Dead End in Norvelt, the very last book I read. In both Kurkov's 1996 black comedy and Gantos's edgy children's novel, a character composes elaborate, lyrical obituaries.

Miss Volker in Dead End in Norvelt writes obituaries for the sake of smuggling local color and history into a fairly shapeless story, however. Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov writes them at the behest of a mysterious editor, and the obituaries (they call them obelisks, a new genre) are at the heart of the plot in Death and the Penguin.

Some of this is just the weird patterns you start seeing when you read too many books, like finding maps of Australia in pavement cracks. But there may be actual influences at work. It would be weird, though not too weird, to think of Kurkov reading the Atwaters or Gantos reading Kurkov. It's far more plausible to think of Kurkov reading Paasilinna, and at one point (94) Viktor sees highly allusive hareprints in the snow. But The Year of the Hare doesn't seem to have been translated into Russian till ten years after Death and the Penguin was published. Ah well, the vagaries of literary affinities.

Considered all by itself, Death and the Penguin is a tightly (if absurdly) plotted, astringently funny novel. Viktor writes obituaries of prominent Ukranians for good money. He doesn't get his own by-line, and naturally even at that figures it will be years before his still-healthy subjects expire and his pieces see print. But soon after he gets this obituary job, the topics of his "obelisks" start dying, violently and regularly. A shady character who shares a name (Misha) with Viktor's pet penguin starts to commission obituaries, which are then predictably published as their subjects buy farms. Viktor even takes on a sideline of renting out his penguin to attend funerals. He acquires a girlfriend and a foster-daughter (two of the three necessities for happiness, he muses; the third is a penguin). But his friends start dying, too: the jovial militiaman Sergey, the dour penguin scientist Pidpaly (in the aforementioned cancer ward). Will Viktor be next? Who is writing his obituary?

Inevitably, there's a sequel (Penguin Lost), and who knows when I'll get to read that. But I am glad that the governing algorithms of the Internet suggested I read Death and the Penguin.

Kurkov, Andrey. Death and the Penguin. [Smert' postoronnego, 1996.] Translated by George Bird. London: Harvill, 2001.

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