The penguin is called Misha and lives with Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov in his bachelor flat in Kiev. His eyes are small and melancholy. Viktor adopted him the year before the story begins, when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. That must have been in 1994: the novel was written between December 1995 and February 1996, so the events in its short course presumably occurred in 1995. By that time there seems to have been no problem about getting frozen salmon, plaice or cod in the local shops: Viktor buys them every day for Misha.
Kiev sounds quite a jolly place all in all, especially in the summer months: plenty of parks and outdoor bars and cafés and children’s playgrounds, with a friendly public transport system to take people to them. An enormous amount of alcohol is consumed in the course of the novel – not just vodka, but whisky, gin, champagne and cognac too. Lots of people have dachas in commuting distance of the city. Lots of slightly sinister people have shiny new foreign cars too. On the other hand, there are people who throw stones. The book opens with a stone landing ‘a metre from Viktor’s foot. He glanced back. Two louts stood grinning . . . They found life dull, ordinary people, now that entertainment was beyond their means. So they bowled cobbles.’ Death and the Penguin is a satire on life in the post-Soviet Ukraine, cast in the form of a comedy thriller.
At the time Viktor adopted Misha, his girlfriend had just left him. ‘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.’ The translation sounds a bit awkward, but the sentence highlights an unusual element in the novel: Kurkov writes about relationships which are friendly without being warm, let alone passionate; and they have an unexpected, quite unforeseeable matter-of-fact charm.
Viktor is an unsuccessful, unpublished writer. So, at the start of the story, he is delighted to be offered the job of obituarist on one of Kiev’s leading papers. We know that papers in every country stockpile obituaries of notables while the notables are still alive. And that is what Viktor has to do: well before the undertaker has been called in, he writes encomia on industrialists, politicians, operatic divas, government officials and high-ranking officers in the Armed Forces, spinning out his copy with pious philosophical clichés – which are funny, but not enormously so. He is paid in cash, often in dollar bills. And quite early on he realises that his subjects tend to die soon after he has written their obituaries. The coincidence begins to seem less random when he discovers two files of his own work in the editor’s office, one marked ‘Approved’, the other marked ‘Processed’. For ‘processed’ read ‘published’, and draw the conclusion. It is wicked to pre-empt the fulfilment of suspicions aroused in a thriller, but Death and the Penguin has so many twists in its plot and is so careless about disguising clues that it can afford to lose a surprise or two. And anyway, a city ruled by a mafia is bound to be full of shocks. The sound of gunfire becomes almost routine, and so does the odd corpse or severed limb on the pavement.
One of the characters who gets disappeared early on is ‘Misha-non-penguin, an associate of the Chief’ (i.e. of the editor). That is how he is described in the list of characters which precedes the novel like the cast list at the start of War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. Here the list seems a bit superfluous (a joke, perhaps?): there are only 13 people on it, but two of them are called Misha and two Sergey – which has no bearing on the plot and isn’t helpful. Misha-non-penguin is a single parent, and often brings his little daughter Sonya with him when he visits Viktor. She sleeps on the sofa while they drink. She is four years old, and that is the only unconvincing thing about her: in her calm self-sufficiency she seems more like a sophisticated eight or nine-year-old, perfectly at ease in grown-up company, and with no problems about getting herself dressed or going to the lavatory. But apart from that implausibility, she is a delightfully achieved and engaging creation. The blurb tells you that in addition to four novels, Kurkov has published four children’s books. I hope they get translated. He writes especially well about children (and penguins) and it would be interesting to know more about childhood in the Ukraine. ‘Odd times to be a child in,’ Viktor muses as he looks at ‘Sonya’s funny little freckled face, her red ponytail with its elastic band. An odd country, an odd life which he had no desire to make sense of. To endure, full stop, that was all he wanted.’
One night Misha-non-penguin sits on in Viktor’s kitchen after his host has gone to bed. Next morning, Viktor finds a note from him: ‘Leaving Sonya with you. She’s your responsibility – you answer for her with your life. Back when the dust settles – Misha.’ Sonya takes it calmly. Viktor shops and cooks for her, takes her for short walks, and once even to the much depopulated zoo. Then he engages a friend’s niece to be her nanny. Nina is young and pretty and a great success with Sonya. She takes the little girl for amusing trips around the town with regular stops for ice-cream. When spring comes, the two of them go boating in the Hydropark, and snowdrop-picking in the country. At night, Nina goes to bed with Viktor. They think of buying a dacha together outside the city. It’s not love, though, any more than it is in the case of Viktor’s adoptive father relationship with Sonya. Someone asks the child whether she thinks he loves her: ‘I told him you didn’t much,’ she reports back to him.
By this time the editor has also disappeared, boarding a flight to Rome (via Larnaca), and leaving Viktor with the pronouncement: ‘The full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required.’ Viktor’s work, meanwhile, has come to include compulsory attendance at the funerals of his subjects. He always takes Misha with him to the cemetery, and a man who is obviously his shadow comes too. He is one of the two Sergeys, a merry fellow, but threatening. A few funerals on, he informs Viktor that it’s only the penguin the mourners want: he’s become a must-have accessory at the ceremony. So Viktor stays at home and leaves Sergey to accompany Misha.
Then Misha catches flu. He seems close to death. Viktor happens to have a contact at the veterinary hospital, and Misha is admitted there. It turns out that he needs a heart transplant. A donor heart is quickly found – it belonged to a little boy killed in a road accident. The surreal element Bulgakov readers expect from a Ukrainian novel has worked its way to the surface.
Misha recovers, but slowly. The vets think he should live in a colder climate. It just so happens that the Ukrainian Antarctic Committee is about to send an expedition to the South Pole. Misha will be allowed to join it. Viktor is to collect his ticket and take him to the airport. But Viktor is scared: Nina and Sonya report that they are being shadowed by a fat man, who buys them ice-cream and asks a lot of questions – including the one about whether Sonya thinks Viktor is fond of her. Then Viktor suddenly gets the sack: the fat man has got his job – and his obituary on file. So he collects Misha’s ticket and boards the plane to the Antarctic himself.
Death and the Penguin has charm; but as a thriller – even as a caricature of a thriller – it’s too full of implausibilities and too rough at the edges to work well. It’s fun to read and worth it for the sense of Kiev that it evokes: an agreeable city – more modern than one might imagine – only with black splodges of mafialand sprinkled over its map. But the German Ingo Schulze did better with his picture of post-Soviet life when he wrote 33 Moments of Happiness. His short stories are about St Petersburg, not Kiev, but the mafia is just as prominent, so the thriller element is inevitable. Schulze is as satirical and funny as Kurkov, but more sophisticated and less slapdash. Besides, he pays attention to the revival of religion and superstition that came with Gorbachev’s fall; and that gives his work an extra dimension of spookiness. Of course spookiness isn’t mandatory, but it helps to keep a book on one’s mind.