Saturday, August 23, 2008

book review: Death and the Penguin

When you open the pages of an Andrey Kurkov novel you are stepping into a world that is not quite the same as our own. This is a world where corruption, death and power are all permanent but fleeting for most of those who grasp after them. It is also a place where a journalist living alone with his penguin can become the catalyst for numerous deaths and odd meetings.

At the heart of the tale there sits in a cold flat Viktor who dreams of becoming a novelist. His book never gets written so he decides to try his hand at writing short stories. That leads to the newspaper getting in touch offering him the chance to write obituaries of high profile dignitaries who are still alive. After a while those he writes about start dying and the snowball that involves the state, mafia and aspiring political schemers starts rolling.

The satire about a corrupt political system where death is cheap and those trying to the top do so for a brief moment before being killed is clear. But there is also something here about the impact that sort of society has on love and friendship.

Along with his penguin Misha Viktor ends up living with a mafia bosses daughter and a young woman he pays to be her nanny. Both of those relationships are financial ones and as a result Viktor comes and goes without making commitments to either of them.

Misha becomes the star of the show connecting Viktor to the underworld as the penguin becomes de rigueur at funerals of the most important slain gangsters and also brings his master into contact with a retired zoologist.

Viktor seems to get through life in a mixture of ignorance and luck always missing the bullets and always managing to get his hands on some dollars whenever he needs them.

But it is Misha that is a wonderful creation. The penguin shuffles round and in his own way communicates his despair and cynical distrust of most of the people around him. In the end he becomes involved as a solo player with the mafia funerals and they pay for him to have a heart transplant.

The irony is that in planning to release Misha back into the wild in the Antarctic it is a dangerously pursued Viktor that ends up taking the flight and escaping from those that would do him harm.

Littered with memorable scenes and larger than life characters and a gentle insight into the madness of a society run by guns and dollars this is an enjoyable book that also gets away with having a penguin as a main character.

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