Cute animals don’t make books less depressing: a review of Death and the Penguin

“That evening he was hard put to it to determine which of the ideas dancing around inside his head would, when committed to paper, merit red pencil.”

Death and the Penguin photo“Russian novels are anything but charming,” my boyfriend said after I told him what I was reading last weekend.

I shrugged. “Well, it’s charming and a bit lonely.”

Death and the Penguin is about a struggling writer who writes too-short short stories and keeps a pet penguin named Misha in his apartment. That’s all I needed to know to get interested, but Viktor, who can’t afford to pay his bills, finds luck with an odd newspaper job writing obituaries about people who are still living. Everyone goes sometime, right?

The extra pay is modest at first — a roof over Viktor’s head and more fish in Misha’s bowl. And Andrey Kurkov’s (by way of translator George Bird) writing is simple and, yes, charming. The characters find pleasure in food and drink, in good company, and in watching the penguin splash around in the bathtub, stare at his reflection in the mirror, or “set off at a comical waddling run” into an ice-hole. The book’s first hints of loneliness are found in the knowledge that the economic and political climate is bad, Viktor’s visits with friends are fewer than he might like, the penguin lives in a too warm climate, and that those long contemplations in the glass are done by an insomniac penguin who occasionally stops and sighs “like an old man weary of both life and himself.”

The more Viktor’s status “improves” — he earns more money on top of his salary with the newspaper, meets new people, and even becomes responsible for a child and possible wife — the more he wonders whether his life has become artificial. Is he happy, and his family full of love?

2013 Eclectic Reader ChallengeViktor’s self-doubts and moodiness as a writer makes these moments of consideration more authentic and natural. When Kurkov pauses to allow his character to ponder his situation, you pay attention to the insights. Running underneath this worry is a strain of anxiety that intensifies as the story goes on. Viktor’s unease that he may be writing obituaries for people who will die, not could die, puts him and his new family in danger just like it has countless others. The day he learns the truth about his work is when he’s no longer needed.

Death and the Penguin‘s depressing narrative is a slow spiral, not one that’s wild or erratic. Piece by piece, the story doesn’t seem to end happily for anyone, and Kurkov isn’t overt about the suffering. It’s subtle, and it grows in power and significance the more your mind considers the consequences.

Bottom line: A bittersweet book that speaks of loneliness and a paradoxical yearning for spiritual freedom and companionship.

What I liked: The inviting simplicity of the writing, most of all. Also, the book feels completely finished and self-contained even though there’s a sequel. While the ending wasn’t happy, it worked well for what it was. But I’m glad there’s another book.

What I wasn’t expecting: Sad penguin. :(

Grade: B+

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