Saturday, August 30, 2008

book review: Penguin Lost


Sometimes it might seem like a mistake to put down one book and then immediately turn to the sequel. In some cases it has taken the author several years to formulate their thoughts so arguably it might be a wise idea to give your own thoughts some time to settle. But let’s face it Andrey Kurkov’s Penguin series is not like getting to the end of the first half of War & Peace and there are after all nagging questions that remain from the sudden end to Death and the Penguin.

In the ending to that book Viktor has jumped on a place intended to take his penguin pet Misha back to the Antarctic. He has flown away from the mafia and the prospect of being killed to lie-low.

When he gets to the ill-funded and remote Ukrainian scientific station there is a dying banker also on the run who kindly gives him a note to take back to Moscow as well as a credit card with funds.

Once back in the Ukraine the hunt starts to find Misha. That takes him into contact with some former characters plus into the world of politics. His talents with a pen come in handy again as a local politician decides to run for serious office. Viktor manages to walk through the cynical world of a local election helped by his protector who introduces him to the argument of the snail’s house, the place of protection.

Viktor does get in touch with his old fellow flat mates the young girl Sonya and Nina and it is the little girl that saves his life when he finally manages to track his penguin down to Chechnya.

In a rather surreal few chapters Viktor finds himself burning bodies in a gas pipe outlet working for a criminal politician who has hidden out in a war zone. The level of cynicism is widespread and it doesn’t seem to be a war with conventional sides but a case of victims trying to cope with a system of corruption and oppression through armed struggle rather than anything conventional because the lines of good and evil are blurred.

With Misha on his way back Viktor starts to plan for the end game that is this time an escape for both him and his penguin. A complicated arrangement leads him into Dubrovnik as part of the Ukrainian arm wrestling team and once there he uses the last of the money from the Moscow bankers account to pay for his passage on a boat that is meant to be heading to the Antarctic.

Instead it is going to South America captained by a couple of war criminals but Viktor is saved again, this time by marriage and finally the moment comes to say goodbye to Misha.

There is the same sense that Viktor can almost daydream his way through war zones, corrupt politicians and mafia bosses partly through ignorance and partly through holding good intentions.

Ultimately there is satire here about the political system and there are probably references to Eastern European politics that escape a British reader but it is the character of Misha the penguin that will be the takeaway from both of the books concerning him. Without speech, limited facial expressions and being almost permanently out of his environment the penguin manages to express both the disbelief and the indifference to what is going on in his adopted country that Viktor seems to be unable to formulate into either words or speech despite his ability as a writer.

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