At my third book spa a few months ago I was presented with Death and the Penguin. I had previously rejected it (wasn't in the mood for bleak Russian drama), but I figured if it had been selected in two out of my three book spa’s then I may as well have done with it and give it a try. Despite what turned out to be a fairly accurate description I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book.
It’s set in Kiev, Ukraine, and tells the story of how Viktor and his pet King Penguin Misha become caught up in the middle of a mafia war. A frustrated writer Viktor finds a job at a newspaper writing obituary articles for the famous and infamous of Kiev who haven’t died yet. At first able to pick and choose who he writes about nobody seems to be dying, after a while the first death happens, and the Editor starts sending lists and bio’s for people he wants articles for. Viktor’s life becomes increasingly complicated and dangerous until the rather surprising (to me) ending. Throughout there is a tone of melancholy. Viktor is a man to whom life happens. He doesn't ever seem to feel he has a choice, or control over events. He also has a strong sense of not being able to form good relationships with people, or Misha, and he and the story are a little frustrating at times. I just wanted to grab him and shake some life into him. In actuality Viktor is the personification of the general feeling of decline of Kiev described in the book. Powerless people just trying to earn what little money when and where they can and stay alive.
It sounds bleak and terrible, and yet it’s not. The book has comedic moments, and you do just have to keep reading. I had to keep reading to see if Viktor realised what his articles were being used for, and why. I had to see what happened to him, Misha the Penguin, and the few people that Viktor acquires along the way. I will definitely be reading ‘Penguin Lost’, the sequel.
When I was reading up about the book I found this article onThe Guardian website, where it appears that the story was rather prophetic. First published in Russian in 1996, it was around the time of it’s publication in English in 2001 that real life events appeared to be imitating the book. For an audience like me, who is not all that aware of what life in the Ukraine is really like it set things in a whole new uncomfortable light.
Well worth a read in my opinion.