Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

This is one of those special novels that one just feels happy to read. The truth is that I didn’t even know the name of its author, until I watched a show about him on Greek TV, and that was it; I’ve decided to dive into his world and, according to those who know best, there’s no better way to start than by reading Death and the Penguin.
     This story could be described as a kind of satire. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny it is, even though it describes a world more or less bleak, where the most outrageous and serious things can happen; one after the other, or at once.
     It all begins when Viktor, a short-story writer and journalist, who has a penguin as a pet, is offered a job to write obituaries for a newspaper. He never thought he could do that, but since the money is good he decides to give it a go. Besides, he can work from home and that’s a bonus.
     Before too long he comes to realize that he’s really good in this field of writing and his boss seems to be more than happy with his work. So, as the time passes, more and more requests will start coming his way, and along with them more money. And thus all his financial worries will vanish. However, some day, by pure chance, he’ll find out that all those people whose obituaries he’s asked to write, die shortly afterwards, and most of them under suspicious circumstances. Something stinks and he knows it, but he’s not inclined to dig deeper into this matter, since he can sense danger all around him.
     In the meantime he, who until now used to be very lonely, spending more or less all his time in his house in Kiev, starts to make some new friends: Militiaman Sergey, little Sonya, who suddenly invaded his home and his heart, and her nanny, Nina, all of sudden come to claim a part in his life. So in a building that used to house only him and Misha the penguin, now come to live two, or at times three, more people. What the hell is going on; one would ask, but the truth is that in this story anything goes. And that’s why, soon enough we’ll see Misha becoming a kind of minor celebrity himself, as some rich people more than happy to pay a lot of money in order to have him present at one funeral or another, will start hiring him. However, fame, as usual, brings trouble, and Misha will one day find himself in the sights of a man, who has some dark plans for him.
     The author has created a unique crime novel parody, in which black humor sets the pace, and where the most unlikely things are likely to happen; things even stranger than the ones we’ve already mentioned. So, somebody breaks into Viktor’s house and instead of stealing leaves some money for him on the table, a man dies with his last request being of his house to be burned, and a young attractive woman falls in love with a much older and graceless man, but not for his money.
     Viktor is not only an animal lover and a philanthropist, but also a kind of everyday philosopher and a poet. So, he considers his job “death as planned economy”, while he thinks that the best season for one to write obituaries is, “autumn, season of dying nature, of melancholy, of seeking the past”. Finally, somewhere he claims that, “the pure and sinless (people) did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary”.
     This novel was so successful that Kurkov decided to write a sequel, Penguin Lost, which we will review for you next month. In the meantime read this interview he gave to the Guardian.

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