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Life doesn’t deserve that one fears for it. Believe me.

November 25, 2013 22 comments

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov 1995 French title: Le pingouin. Translated from the Russian by Nathalie Armagier.

Victor posa sa machine à écrire sur la table de la cuisine et se mit, un mot après l’autre, à composer des portraits vivants de futurs défunts. Victor put his typewriter on the kitchen table and, one word after the other, started to compose lively portraits of future deceased.

book_club_2For November our Book Club had selected Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I have read the French translation, which means I’ll have to translate into English the quotes I want to include in this billet. I’ll leave the French translation for you as well. If you can read in French, then at least you’ll read a version by a professional translator. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with my attempts at translation. Now back to the book.

We’re in Kiev in the 1990s and the main character of our novel is the would-be writer Victor. He’s been trying to write a book, to no avail. He needs a job to pay the bills, so when an editor at the Stolitchnaïa, Igor Lvovitch wants to hire him to write obituaries, he accepts. Victor writes “little crosses” about people who are still alive; the newspaper will be prepared in case of their death.

Kurkov_pingouinVictor lives in a two-bedroom flat with his penguin Micha. He adopted him the year before when the zoo was giving animals away because they couldn’t afford to feed them. Victor knows nothing about penguins but the waddling presence of Micha distracts him from his solitude. They complement each other.

Soon after taking on this new job, at which he is very good, several people enter into Victor’s universe. First, he strikes up an acquaintance with a man named Micha. He comes upon Igor’s recommendation and requests a necrology for a dying friend. Victor accepts to write it and Micha becomes an occasional visitor, coming with his daughter Sonia. Then he meets Sergueï, a policeman who accepts to come at Victor’s and feed Micha while Victor is away. Victor and Sergueï quickly become friends, taking Micha the penguin out and spending time together.

Victor slowly realises that since he’s taken on this new job, weird things happen around him. The persons he has written about seem to die suddenly and of unrealistic cause:

Il est tombé du cinquième étage. Il semblerait qu’il ait été occupé à laver les carreaux, mais étrangement, ce n’était pas chez lui. En outre, il faisait nuit. He fell down from the fifth floor. It seems he was cleaning the window, but strangely, it wasn’t his. And, it was at night.

It reminds me of a Corsican death where the guy commits suicide by shooting himself three bullets in the back. Then Micha disappears, leaving Sonia under Victor’s care. Then Igor warns Victor that he should maintain a low profile for a while, which leads him to spend Christmas in Sergueï’s dacha. Micha the man doesn’t come back and Victor hires Sergueï’s niece Nina to babysit Sonia. The three of them start living together. In a short span of time, Victor goes from living like a hermit with a penguin to sharing his life with a child and a woman.

That’s not the most important preoccupation here. With what kind of mob has Victor become involved? What should he do? Close his eyes and look the other way? Stop writing “little crosses”? But can he stop? I was interested by the plot and wanted to know who was behind Victor’s job and what it was all about.

However, there’s more to Death and the Penguin than just that. It was written in 1995, not long after the collapse of the USSR. Through the characters’ everyday life, Kurkov depicts life in Ukraine during those years. Material goals prevail. Everybody wants to survive and that’s the most important. Public services are in bad shape and corruption is everywhere. Here’s Pidpaly, one of Victor’s acquaintances after he has discovered that he has cancer:

– Et le médecin, il en dit quoi ?- Le médecin, il dit que si je lui donne mon appartement, je vivrai encore trois mois… – And what does the doctor say ?– The doctor says that if I give him my apartment, I’ll live three months more…

We’re far from the Hippocratic oath, aren’t we? The environment is violent: the book opens with Victor being hit by stones and the dachas are protected from thieves by antipersonnel land mines. Charming. On a lighter tone, I enjoyed reading about underground malls, parties on the ice to let Micha the penguin have fun, Christmas traditions and dishes.

In Kurkov’s voice I heard typical Russian literature. There’s a strong sense of humour and of the grotesque. The idea of a man living with a penguin that eats frozen fish, takes baths in a bathtub and sleeps on a little blanket is rather funny. The penguin attracts attention and affection. He’s a silent but comforting presence in Victor’s life. Micha is depressed but his sadness seems to reflect Victor’s. Gogol could have invented him.

Victor is a strange character. He’s passive and adapts to the events as they happen. He changes his diet when Sonia starts living with him because she needs to eat properly. He doesn’t particularly like children but never tries to get rid of her. She comes into his life, he adjusts. Nina wants them to live as a family, he adjusts. Igor needs to hide for a while, he helps him. When Pidpaly is in the hospital and dies, he takes care of the ceremony even if he only briefly knew the man. Victor brings his help to people who need it and yet he seems indifferent to everything. There’s a strong feeling of resignation in the novel, something I attach to Russian literature. Perhaps I’m wrong to generalise.

Kurkov’s style is quite lively. I liked his description of the city, the weather and how it impacts Victor’s mood.

Dehors, l’hiver que le gel faisait croustiller suivait son cours. Tout était plutôt calme. Outside, winter that frost made crusty followed its path. All was rather quiet.

It’s a tale laced with black humour or comic stemming from situations. I laughed at this passage:

Victor était assis tout au bout du divan, Sergueï occupait le fauteuil, et le pingouin restait debout ; la nature ne l’avait pas doté de la faculté de s’asseoir. Victor was sitting at the end of the couch, Sergueï was in the armchair and the penguin was standing. Nature hadn’t granted him the faculty to sit down.

In literature, we often see children speaking like little adults and too mature for their assumed age. In Death and the Penguin, I thought that Sonia’s voice was convincing. I could hear a young child speaking when reading her dialogues. She makes observations typical from young children. When spring comes back and the ice starts to melt outside, she says Uncle Vitia! (…) The icicles are weeping! It reminded me of our son who declared very seriously one morning Look Mom, the orange juice is smiling. He was about Sonia’s age at the time.

The combination of the plot, the offhand observations of the Ukrainian society and the picturesque characters makes of Death and the Penguin a funny tale tainted with crime fiction. I had a good time reading it. In our book club, someone couldn’t finish it, she couldn’t care less about Victor’s fate and didn’t accept the assumption that it is perfectly plausible to live with a penguin. (No problem for me, I remind you that I’m totally sold on a story about a man who lives with a python who hugs him, written by the way, by a Frenchman of Russian origin.). Just to say that opinions aren’t unanimous on this one. For another review, please find Guy’s here.

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