Home > 1990, 20th Century, Book Club, Kurkov Andrey, Novel, Ukrainian Literature > Life doesn’t deserve that one fears for it. Believe me.

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

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. November 25, 2013 at 1:00 am

    I’m glad you liked this Emma. I tried another book by this author and couldn’t finish it. I think you are correct btw, to say that Russians live life with a large dollop of resignation.


    • November 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      I can see how it can be repetitive when the novelty of the penguin has worn out.


  2. November 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    I’m not normally one for the absurd either, but I had no trouble with Gros-Calin when I read it a while ago, so it looks as if I’d be fine with Kurkov and his penguins too. Anyway, “taking Micha the penguin out and spending time together” – I like that. What you write about this book makes me think of Victor Pelevin (e.g. Homo “Zapiens”, also known as “Generation P” and “Babylon”)? Have you ever come across him?


    • November 25, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      I haven’t read Victor Pelevin but I should try him. Thanks for the tip.
      I love Gros Câlin, it’s among my favourite Garys.


  3. November 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    How bizarre! The penguin adoption thing sounds unbelievable, but good writers can make unbelievable things seem totally normal. I remember reading The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov a few years ago, and he had me believing crazy things, like the devil running through Moscow and cats riding on the subway. As a writer I know how difficult it is to get people to believe even ordinary things, so writers who can bring off penguins living in two-bedroom apartments have my respect!


    • November 25, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      I must have a thing for novels with animals. I really liked Firmin, Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. It’s about a rat who’s a bookworm. Have you read it?


  4. November 25, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Somehow the penguin just seems normal. Perhaps I’m flying on the idea of the otter in the bath from A Ring of Bright Water


    • November 25, 2013 at 11:10 pm

      You need a huge bathtub to put an otter in it, no?


  5. November 26, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Emma, this has been sitting on my wishlist for ages, but your review pushed me to finally order it today. Thank you for such a lovely review.


    • November 26, 2013 at 9:55 pm

      I’m glad it helped you decide whether you wanted to read it or not.


  6. November 27, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! I haven’t heard of this book before – I think I first heard of it when you posted about your readalong titles. I liked the way Victor accepted and did things – being detached and resigned but helping people who came into his life. I think it is very difficult state to reach and it is not exactly pessimistic because Victor actually goes out of his way to help people. I loved what Sonia said (‘the icicles are weeping’) and what your son said (‘the orange juice is smiling’) 🙂 What the doctor said to Pidpaly was quite bleak, but it also made me laugh. Such dark humour. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review.


    • November 29, 2013 at 8:20 pm

      Victor doesn’t care that much about his safety and yet takes care about strangers’ well-being. Little Sonia is nothing to him and neither is the scientist Pidpaly. He’s resigned. It’s also the reaction of a man to a drastic change in the country. It was written in 1995 in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. I can’t imagine what people who were born after the war and had known nothing else felt when their country suddenly changed like this.
      Children have their candid way with words. It’s surprising sometimes. I think writers rarely manage to capture that, unless it’s children literature. Otherwise, children tend to speak and think like adults. (except for Momo in La vie devant soi by Romain Gary, of course!)


      • November 30, 2013 at 9:36 am

        Now you have tempted me with one more Romain Gary book 🙂 I will look for ‘La vie devant soi’. Have you read Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’? I loved the child’s voice in that too, especially at the beginning of the book.


        • November 30, 2013 at 11:29 am

          I haven’t read Room. I’m not a great fans of book with a child narrator. La vie devant soi is an excellent book but not my favorite Gary.


  7. November 27, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I’m very glad you liked it. I bought this when it came out in Germany but never read it so far. I always tought it was a great idea to have a penguin character.
    Too bad the follow-up didn’t work for Guy.


    • November 29, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      I’m curious to read your review. Introducing a penguin as a character is a bet. Micha doesn’t speak, though. He’s a pet, sleepless and depressed, but still a pet. I think Guy’s analysis about Micha and Victor’s relationship is right. Micha mirrors what Victor doesn’t want to show.


  8. November 29, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    The penguin adoption thing sounds unbelievable as Andrew says, but apparently Moscow zoo at one point really did have people adopt animals for a while, so as with so much in Russian literature it’s the surreal bits that are realistic.

    It does sound huge fun. It’s long been on my list, but as a piece of “serious” literature. Given it seems to be fun serious literature it’ll get higher up the list even quicker.

    Necrology by the way I suspect should be obituary.


    • November 29, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Of course it’s strange to have a penguin as a pet. It was a sort of assumption from the beggining of the book. If you don’t accept it as plausible, you can’t enjoy the book. It works because the penguin remains a penguin and doesn’t do things a penguin isn’t incapable of.

      I thought it was funny. Black humour sometimes, but funny. The examples of obituaries are really entertaining.

      PS : Thanks for reminding me that I should have used obituary. I know the word. Necrology is a faux ami. In French, obituary is nécrologie. However, the dictionary translates necrology by nécrologie. So now I’m confused. What’s the difference between obituary and necrology?


      • December 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

        We don’t use necrology in English really. If we did it would mean the study of death. I can imagine it being used in a fantasy novel or something like that, but not otherwise/normally.


        • December 2, 2013 at 8:07 pm

          Thanks, I understand now.


  9. November 29, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    I feel the madness of Victors world is as much a comment on the world around Kurkov at the time as it is absurd the madness of the Soviet system at times makes having a penguin seem quite normal ,I live Kurkov quiry take on life but also think there is more behind his writing than we think ,all the best stu


  1. June 23, 2015 at 9:34 pm
  2. March 26, 2023 at 8:51 pm

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