by Andrey Kurkov
The publication of Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov's debut novel, heralds a unique new voice in post-soviet satire. Set in the Ukraine in the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this dark, deadpan tale chronicles the journalistic career of Victor, who shares a flat with Misha, his depressed Penguin, rescued from the under-funded zoo in Kiev. Victor is asked to write obelisks, obituaries, for a prominent city paper about notable figures in the community, and quickly transforms himself from struggling writer to wealthy journalist. It soon becomes apparent that there is a more sinister motive at play, and Victor finds himself descending in a Kafkaesque realm of suspicion and unease.
This strange, thoughtful and gentle novel will leave the reader satisfied and perplexed at its conclusion. Kurkov seems to question whether Victor or the Penguin is lonelier and more out of place in his environment. The Death in the title is ever present, though not in an oppressive way, but this also makes one want to question Victor's belief that a long hard life is better than a quick death. Many comparisons will undoubtedly be made between Kurkov's novel and the writing of other authors from the former Soviet republics to make it to print in the United Kingdom. Certainly it's fair to say that this belongs to the tradition of Russian satire made well known in this country by writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Venedikt Yarofeev. It is also interesting to read this alongside the works of contemporaries such as Evgenev Popov and Viktor Pelevin. However, where Pelevin drifts off into the fantastical and esoteric, Kurkov keeps it deadpan and very real. It is important to remember that many of the strange events that occur in this book are grounded in fact: amals really were given away by Kiev zoo--truth is often stranger than fiction. --Iain Robinson
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