Given everything that has been happening in Ukraine in recent months, I felt it was time to tackle the Ukrainian satire that had been sat on my bookshelf, silently waiting for me to be in the right mood. Roll on Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, a humorous but bleak thriller set shortly after the end of Soviet control in Ukraine.
Viktor Zolotaryov is our protagonist, a budding writer struggling to find work, who also happens to be the owner of a rather gloomy king penguin named Mischa. Viktor manages to find work writing advance obituaries for a local Kiev newspaper, which appear to be going down incredibly well with the editor in chief, until Viktor notices something a little suspicious about them. It becomes clear to him that shortly after he delivers each obituary to his editor, the subject mysteriously dies. Viktor is set on a spiralling path of systematic murder, handed the responsibility for a job he doesn’t understand and never asked for. He flits from fully conscious paranoia to surreal despondency, at once fearing his situation and, you know, not really caring about it.
Kurkov’s storytelling is at times Kafkaesque, the role handed to his leading man being reminiscent of Josef K’s infamous trial, and expertly brings our perception of responsibility to the foreground. We are left wondering who is really to blame for the situation – Viktor is heavily involved in a series of murders, but remains blind to it for an unreasonable amount of time, as though he simply doesn’t want to know. Mischa the penguin acts as a brilliant reflection of Viktor’s reticent character, depressed and uncomfortable, a fish out of water (a penguin out of Antarctica). Mischa is the product of a faltering regime, an animal sold off by the local zoo that cannot afford to keep him, while Viktor is a product of the same regime: a writer struggling to survive during the recession created by a fledgling state, dragged involuntarily into the lucrative world of political corruption.
The Ukraine of the mid-nineties may seem a long way off after years of economic recovery and relative stability since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but nearly two decades later we see the complex struggle for political unity reported in the news every day. I can’t claim to understand the situation entirely, and to be honest I found the Ukrainian political system baffling before Russia starting making a play for it again. Kurkov’s wit and brevity guide his smart narrative, and despite its gloom the story is gripping and entertaining. This tale of the crude political underworld and media governance of mid-nineties Ukraine seems to me to be just as relevant and unsettling now as it must have been 18 years ago, which is pretty sad when you think about it.
Death and the Penguin (published by Vintage, translated by George Bird) is available in all reputable bookshops for £8.99.