Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (2001: The Harvill Press) Set in a Ukraine that’s in the process of rebuilding itself, this book follows a struggling writer as he unwittingly finds himself embroiled in the world of organised crime, shadowed all the while by an unlikely sidekick – his pet penguin Misha.
A Ukranian book. About a writer. His depressed penguin. And the Mafia.
Well, that sounds a bit different doesn’t it? It was enough to make me want to pick this book up. It’s been a year or two since I read this, but it’s kind of stuck with me. I haven’t read anything like it since. I even tried another book by the same author, but it didn’t quite hit the same notes as this one.
Its major plus is the way in which it lets you discover it. From the first page, you’re given a sense that you’re uncovering something brilliant. And it doesn’t shout at you, it doesn’t jump up and down waving its arms in the air saying “hey, I’m a great little book, feel free to marvel at my brilliance.” Kurkov’s style is so incredibly understated that it has a very honest quality. It’s written in such an uncomplicated way that it ends up almost whispering the story to you, and you’re left feeling like you’ve been let into a pretty special secret.
And it’s funny. It really is. You’re not left doubled up in hysterics, but the surreal storyline and the dead-pan delivery ends up being funny in a really warm way. The story and its characters just stand there on the pages, looking at you expressionless, puzzled by the bizarre circumstances they’re surrounded by, and you can’t help but find their simplicity both endearing and funny at the same time.
Downsides? Well, for all the positive qualities of the stripped down writing style, it also comes with the inevitable negative of feeling a little thin sometimes. You never feel like you’re really biting into anything with much weight. And for all its comic qualities, you do end up feeling in places that it gets a little too convoluted. Only once or twice though, and it’s not enough to detract from the overall entertainment of this book.
The penguin is the star of course, and the book ends up taking on the qualities of the animal. Inherently funny, very simple and honest, quirky, heart warming - but held back a little by its unavoidable silliness.
Definitely worth a read. Very different and very enjoyable.
Next week, another change of pace (because I know you get bored easily). GBR will move from post-modern Ukranian chic to a classic English saga.
Try to behave until next Sunday.