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?

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