Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Two by Andrey Kurkov (#GoUkraine)

"An odd country, an odd life which he had no desire to make sense of. To endure, full stop, that was all he wanted." 

-Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin, p. 34

I've been thinking about the Ukraine lately. Well, who isn't? There's a park near my house where school groups play if the weather is at all tolerable. I went by the other day and a bunch of six-year-olds were chanting, "Go Ukraine, Go Ukraine..."

So I ordered up some Ukraine books from the library.

The two Andrey Kurkov novels I got both date from 1996, both are set in Kiev, and are both translated from the Russian by George Bird. I read Andrey Kurkov's A Matter of Death and Life first, because it was the shorter... ;-)

Tolya has just lost his job and his wife. He contemplates suicide, but doesn't have the nerve to do it himself. He's got friends in dodgy places and decides he'll hire a hit man, ostensibly to kill the wife's new lover, but instead of the lover, he supplies a photo and location details for himself. Suicide by hit man. But then he meets somebody new, gets a job (though a fairly corrupt one). By an accident of timing, he survives the planned attempt on his life, and then decides he'd rather live.

I enjoyed this, and the twist that resolves his dilemma was pretty good, but it is slight. If it was longer than its 110 pages it would have definitely felt overstuffed.

Death and the Penguin is the better-known, and better, novel. I found it very good indeed.

Viktor Zolotaryov is a not very successful writer. He's written stories, unpublished, and dreams of writing a novel, but hasn't got the oomph. He makes (not much of) a living writing occasional journalism. Viktor's one distinction is he has a pet penguin. The impoverished zoo was giving away animals to those who promised to feed them.

Then a newspaper editor sees one of Viktor's stories, likes the style, but doesn't publish fiction. But he asks Viktor, for a handsome salary, to start writing obituaries--for the files. 

Viktor has a talent, or so it seems, but this isn't exactly a way into print because the obits are just kept on file for when they're needed. Initially he gets to pick his own subjects; a Mafia-connected figure comes by and asks Viktor to write an obit for a friend who's ill and offers extra cash for the job. But the friend recovers, and Viktor complains to the Mafia figure that he'd like to appear in print, but none of his subjects has died. The Mafia figure asks which of his obits does Viktor think the best and Viktor tells him.

Then one of his obituaries does appear in print. Somebody's died. Guess who?

"How did he die?" Viktor asked.
"Fell from a sixth-floor window -- was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn't his. And at night." [30]
The dam's burst; there's more deaths. Viktor has clearly gotten himself into the middle of something he can't control or even comprehend. Viktor is advised to disappear for a while for safety. His editor disappears for a while -- also for safety. The Mafia acquaintance disappears -- for safety -- and entrusts his daughter Sonya to Viktor -- for safekeeping. Viktor hires Nina, the niece of a friend, to help him watch over Sonya. Viktor and Nina become involved.

What is the nature of a normal life?
"...an ordered, normal life -- for which the essential requisites: wife, child, pet penguin, were present..." [149]

Is that what Viktor has? 

It's the mid-90s and Ukraine is newly independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Corruption is around every corner; differences of opinion are solved by violence; maybe a little exaggerated, but not inaccurate, I suspect. Is this violence and corruption normal and expected?
"The pure and the sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn't easy to remain entirely honest and upright." [61]

Russia doesn't loom as large in these two novels of the early independent Ukraine as it does now. 

The back of the novel cites Bulgakov; certainly it is a black comedy (and is definitely funny) along the lines of Gogol and Bulgakov, though perhaps not quite as extravagant as those two: nobody's nose runs off to a separate existence, nor does the Devil appear. (Though the penguin's story arc is definitely weird.)

The two novels are actually fairly similar in their structure: the protagonist gets in over his head and requires a twist to get out of the dangerous world of corruption he's fallen into. But the twist in Death and the Penguin is both better setup and more surprising. Highly recommended. 

I need to return these to the library soon; initially I got them pretty quick, but now everybody wants them. But in exchange I get to pick up Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

Go Ukraine.


  1. As a child raised with Mr. Popper, I would not have been able to resist a story with a character who adopted a penguin.

    1. Ooh! I've never read that one. It does look fun.

  2. Great reviews. I haven't read any Ukrainian authors. I like the idea of reading a history book & look forward to your review on that one.
    I haven't seen Mudpuddle around the blogging world since he mentioned his heart problem. I do hope he is o.k.

    1. Thanks! I've read Sholem Aleichem before, but he's probably the only other one & that's a while back.

      Yes, I haven't seen signs of him either. Since he was able to blog about it even briefly I had hoped it wasn't too serious, but it seems it might have been. Here's hoping he's recovering.

  3. I think I would like Death and the Penguin! Too bad my library doesn't have a copy. And all the books they do have on Ukraine are checked out right now. Go Ukraine!

    1. It was pretty funny--though not entirely cheering...