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VINE VOICEon 3 December 2006
Kurkov's understated humour and perfect, deadpan style makes this quirky little story, full of quirky characters, a gem. Death and the Penguin is the nectar of booklovers and Misha, a penguin rescued from a struggling zoo, is one of the most animated, engaging and touching characters in contemporary fiction. But there's more to Kurkov's writing than a sideways laugh at human foibles. Death of Penguin shows many pictures of loneliness and human isolation. Viktor is an aspiring writer but lacks the energy to follow his dreams and, by settling for bread today and giving up on the idea of jam tomorrow, finds himself drawn into a mafiaesque world of crime and assassination in the chill starkness of post-Soviet Kiev. Misha comes to live with him when the local zoo can no longer afford to feed him. Both are lonely, Viktor isolated from human society and Misha alone amid it. Yet it is Misha who seems able to make strong relationships - first with Sonia, a little girl who comes to live with Viktor when her father is swept away into oblivion by his life of crime, and then with the reader: who cannot fail to adore the quiet, reliable, predictable animal, or to delight in his pleasure in fish and cold bathes, or sorrow over his inability to adjust to life in a climate so much warmer than his native land?

Here too is a stark, if one-sided, portrayal of life in the former Soviet state of Ukraine. And it's not a nice life. It's cold, it's hard and seemingly pointless. Deprived of the structure of the state, each seems to struggle to embrace with vigour the concept of democratic freedom. What Death of a Penguin amounts to is a strong indictment of a political reform which has left a population, bereft of communist community, without any societal fabric at all: without hope, without security and unable to realise the promise of liberty. This book is very funny. It's very sad. And it's very, very good.
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on 6 May 2012
Death and the Penguin is a black tragic-comedy. It is written in short, simple sentences and told through a series of short scenes in a deadpan style. The premise of the story is interesting and the telling is deceptively effective. There is a nice building up of additional characters and there is a good sense of place in post-Soviet Kiev, though some wider political contextualisation would have been useful. The inclusion of Misha was, I thought, was a nice touch and was well used. There were, however, two main issues with the story. The first was that Victor was very one-dimensional as a character with little emotional depth or resonance. He seemed quite monotonous regardless of circumstance or context. The second is that towards the end of the story, the narrative veered towards the absurd and for me, at least, started to fall apart. Overall, I enjoyed the read, but wasn't bowled over by it.
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on 23 April 2002
While it doesn't quite reach the heights of Bulgakovs "Master and Margarita", this book is the best black comedy I have read in years. If you enjoy authors like Bulgakov, Voinovich or Zamyatin then grab a copy of "Death and the Penguin", as it really is a worth it. The main characters are described in a cursory way, but they are still very believable - the sparseness of the writing leaving space for your own imagination to flesh them out. The plot is undeniably Kafkaesque, but the whole novel is imbued with a warmth that I found lacking in "The Castle" or "The Trial".
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on 14 May 2001
Kurkov's tale of a freelance writer hired to write a stock of obituaries for a Kiev newspaper is easily one of the most rewarding books I have ever bought. The plot and style of this work offer a piece that is unpretentious and accessible yet, at the same time, very deep and ingeniously funny.
Viktor, working under a lonely naivety and distracted by the care of his penguin 'Misha' (rescued from a cash strapped zoo), becomes unknowingly embroiled in the dark politics of Ukrainian politics and feuding Mafia gangs, whilst he searches for the cure to his lonely existence.
Getting a job as a writer hired to write obituaries of the most notorious characters in Kiev, he soon grows suspicious when the subjects of his premature tributes begin to conveniently die. We never see anything of the bloody feuds behind the scenes but are fed enough snippets via Viktor's own misguided speculation to begin to piece together the dark underlying truth.
The ending was perfectly executed, without being too obvious and yet remaining true to the plot and tone of the rest of the book. The whole novel left me feeling deeply satisfied, I cannot recommend this novel enough.
I have just read this book along with Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' and Christian Cook's 'Broken Eggshells' and can wholeheartedly recommend these three as a complimentary set. Conrad's as a historical backdrop to the genre and 'Broken Eggshells' as a nice, but subtly different, contemporary cousin to Kurkov's own work.
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on 17 March 2013
The first word of the title of this book is the clue to what it's about. Death. The death of communism, the death of hope, the death of the soul, the death of love. Ukraine may be newly-emerged as nation, but it's citizens are no less subject to repression and paranoia than they were before, and our central character Viktor represents what all this has done to the individual. He's a present-day Winston Smith rendered emotionless and helpless by his circumstances, and unable to connect to those around him - his partner (more lodger than lover), his surrogate daughter and his pet metaphor (the penguin). They all live in a tiny, claustraphobic flat in a residual Stalinist housing block, thrown together by chance but unbound by any real affection for each other. Viktor unwittingly becomes a pawn in the murderous dealings of a state now driven by organised crime rather than political idealism. The end result is the same - people don't matter, and penguins, for all their cute quirkiness, don't count much either.
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on 30 October 2003
I bought this book after it came up as an Amazon recommendation for me. I was intrigued by the title of course, and the cover, and the existing reviews suggested it would be my kind of book.
The tone is bleak, but darkly comic, too. The weather, for much of the book, is icy cold – this described so beautifully and vividly by Kurkov that I felt chilled myself! The environment is stark, whether Viktor’s apartment, the surrounding streets, the nearby zoo, even the dacha where the characters escape to celebrate the New Year. The prose matches the sparse environment, and I loved the economy in Kurkov’s writing. There is no flowery prose, and yet the evocations are vivid; beauty peppers the novel, but simply. I’m left with an overall impression of coffee, strong alcohol and bright, freezing air.
Misha, Viktor’s pet penguin, is a delightful character. For one who does so little, he really engages the reader. He is vividly drawn (as far as my imagination is aware of penguins!), and adds warmth to the bleak apartment, and to the monotony of Viktor’s life.
Viktor’s unfortunate association with the criminal underworld is presented as inevitable. Everything in Viktor’s life seems inevitable. He just lives, shuffles through life metaphorically as Misha does literally, really at the whim of others as to what he does next. He writes obituaries because he’s told to, he includes more of his Editor’s selected “facts” about his subjects, sacrificing his own writing, because he’s told to. He attends funerals with Misha, considers buying a dacha with the women who spends enough time with him to be considered his girlfriend, takes on the care of a four year old girl and disappears at “difficult” times, all because he’s told to. This is not a man in control, but a man who for the most part accepts his fate, his role. Only toward the end does he start questioning a little.
But I warmed to Viktor. I liked him, though felt sorry for him, wished I could sit down and try and spur him on a bit!
I found this a beautiful little novel, I really enjoyed Kurkov’s style, and his characters, found his prose very pleasing. The absurdity of the situation never really strikes the reader as odd, because the tale is presented through Viktor’s eyes, as his bleak matter-of-fact reality.
I would re-read this book, happily, though realistically I never find the time! But I recommend it whole-heartedly. I had mentioned it, before I read it, to an acquaintance who happened to mention she liked penguins. I have no idea what she usually reads, but she bought and read this novel and loved it too…so a 100% success rate here!
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on 30 August 2009
This book was far better than its sequel. Viktor and his 1 metre tall Emperor penguin live in a nightmarish world of Post-Soviet Ukraine where intrigue and danger stalk the Obituary writers every move. Without ruining the plot, the seemingly plum job-well paid- of Newspaper obituarist, by turns becomes more and more dangerous as Viktor unwittingly finds himself at the heart of a deadly game of Politics.
Writing obituaries for a mysterious Newspaper Editor who underlines in red- as Stalin did in red crayon, orders for liquidations- the elements of an obituary he has written to order, one by one , these subjects mysteriously die.
Choosing to close his eyes to the moral dilemma he finds himself in; he acquires a murdered friends child on the way, and with a teenage baby sitter for company, this family of four-penguin included- make for an odd cast, as Viktor eludes the Mafia on his trail. The best part of the story is when Viktor discovers his own obituary, quite at variance with how he had perceived himself.
Post Soviet Ukraine is an unattractive place, hard and lacking in self-respect. The penguins silence, and beady eyed stares speak eloquently for the breakdown of a previously ordered society into an amoral Kafkaesque nightmare, but then was it really so different under Communism...?
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on 14 August 2010
'Death and the Penguin' is one of those books which shouldn't work, but somehow it does. It's a novel which address serious themes of death, loneliness and the casually oppressive nature of post-Soviet society in Ukraine, and yet it does so with humour. And a penguin.

The story of Viktor, a struggling writer who gets a job writing obituaries for people while they are alive who then strangely start dying off, is enjoyable and written in such a way that it seems perfectly logical rather than as unbelieveable as it should. Andrey Kurkov's deadpan narrative style works perfectly in this book. It is impossible not to laugh at the very serious way in which Viktor takes his penguin to go swimming in the frozen river, but wraps him up in a towel when he emerges so that he doesn't get cold. Equally amusing is the thought of someone going into hiding and taking a penguin (not exactly inconspicuous) with him. In a novel in which most relationships are simply based on the characters wanting something out of each other for their own personal benefit, the peculiar bond between Viktor and Misha the penguin stands out and is oddly touching. I expected the penguin to be responsible for a lot of the humour in the book, but not for the emotion as well.
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on 26 July 2004
Yes Death and the Penguin has it all. Being new to Russian, or indeed Ukrainian literature such as this is, I was not sure what to expect, but having always been interested in Russian history I decided to give it a go. The story centres around Viktor, a man who desperately wants to write stories but instead makes a very good living from writing obelisks for a Kiev newspaper, and the character title of the penguin, nmed Misha, whom Viktor rescued from a zoo which could not keep its animals any more. A story unfolds which takes in murder, politics, intrigue, death, destruction and, ultimately, the simple tale of one man and his unusual pet, his penguin, and the great attachment they feel for one another. There is also romance, love which humans can find when thrown together in unusual circumstances, in this case three strangers, Viktor, an acquaintances little girl who has been left in his keeping and her nanny (the niece of a friend) with one thing in common, by the end of the book they have all lost somebody.
Death and the Penguin is not a morbid book. It mentions death in frank terms but it does not dwell upon it. It is not a happy book and yet is is not an entirely sad book either. The relationship between Viktor and Misha is genuinely touching and the unwitting part that both are led to play in the games of the Russian mafia does have a resounding effect.
Ultimately, Death and the Penguin, takes you all the way to another country, another way of life, and back. So much so that you can taste the snow in the air on the smoky streets of Kiev and taste the vodka with which Viktor and Sergey, the militiaman, toast the new year. The book comes to a rather abrupt but eponymous ending, leaving perhaps the way to a sequel in which we could discover the true fates of Viktor and his good friend Misha.
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on 9 June 2007
Funny, tragic and brilliant are the only words I can think of to describe this story. The story itself is unique and captivating, and Misha is an adorable penguin in all his depressive glory. I'm certainly looking forward to reading more from Kurkov and I would heartily recommend this to anyone after a different sort of story.
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