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on 16 January 2017
I don't get the rave reviews at all - I have read enough by now to know a good book when i read it and this just ain't it, I laboured on through this lightweight flimsy piece of work written in the spare superficial style of an eleven year old, hoping to gain some new deeper insight into the Ukrainian Zeitgeist. I didn't find much in the way of new or revealing commentary. Perhaps it reflects too accurately the stifling grey post Soviet world to hold the interest. It did strike me however that the story would lend itself very well to an amusing art house film if somebody were to snap up the rights. The elements are there - it does have a plot, potentially interesting characters, movement and novelty, just in the writing it lacks the depth and colour to givit it any vitality. Not my cup of tea anyway.
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VINE VOICEon 7 February 2016
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov translated from Russian by George Bird was a delight to read. The deadpan prose is as clipped as you will find with every superfluous word removed. It makes Ian Fleming's Bond look like Mervyn Peake's 'Titus Groan' and yet still contains some poetically delivered passages on ennui and existentialist angst.

After a recent slog through a long Japanese translation, this was a breath of fresh air and an exhilaratingly quick read. The main character is an odd-jobbing writer called Viktor who keeps a pet penguin, rescued from a struggling zoo, in his flat. He gets a new job writing obituaries for a newspaper but the subjects of the write-ups are alive… for the moment.

Viktor soon discovers that he part of a shadowy plot to remove certain people - most notably corrupt high ranking government and army officials - from power by assassination. His obituaries seem to spur on the efforts on the hidden group of men involved in the killings.It’s hard for me not to describe this contemporary Ukrainian tale as Kafkaesque.

To add to Viktor's troubles he is told that those that oppose the plot are out to get him, he gets lumbered with looking after Sonya the young daughter of one of the plotters as well as his penguin and also begins a sexual relationship with Sonya’s nanny.

It is an entertainingly dark comic tale of one man’s dysfunction struggling to cope with ‘family life’ and his unwitting complicity in something that will change the shape of his nation. I thoroughly recommend it.
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on 25 February 2016
A bizarre and troublesome novel.

The plot is pure fantasy, but it is this sense of the ridiculous that makes the details in the background of the novel all the more striking. Kurkov fills it with his lived experience of Kiev and it is such that, by the end of the book, Viktor and his penguin, Misha, feel more normal than the 'real' world. In this society a man needing hospital treatment must bride the ambulance drivers to get there and is offered life prolonging medicine from the doctor in exchange for his flat; men disappear, or are disappeared, with little or no explanation; there are gunshots in the street, gangsters who cannot be refused, and no sense of safety. Viktor spends the majority of the novel as a passenger in his own life, choices are made for him, and his only flash of agency comes at the end when it becomes a case of life or death.

I picked this up after listening to Kurkov on the BBC World Book Club. He was interesting, political, informed, funny. His explanation of the book was more interesting than the book itself. The satire just wasn't quite sharp enough. Plus, the penguin was a much better character than anyone else and we are left wondering about his fate. What kind of author does that?
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on 10 June 2013
I read this along with other members of my book circle, and as usual, there were opposing viewpoints.
I thought the book had a certain amount of charm and I liked the main character, Viktor. Others thought he displayed no feelings for anyone except penguin Misha. Much of that was due to the deadpan style, which, once again, I enjoyed.
Viktor, who, as a writer of obelisks (obituaries) becomes involved with the Russian mafia, when his subjects, chosen by the chief at the newspaper, start dropping like flies, has relationships with a friendly militia man, Sergei, Sergei's niece, Nina, who briefly becomes the woman of the house, and Sonya, who becomes a surrogate daughter when she is placed in Viktor's care to protect her. Viktor is not overwhelmed with love for either Nina, or the child, but he cares for them, in his way, and briefly enjoys being part of a family. Perhaps, since Nina more or less foisted herself upon him, there is some resentment about her, and equally the child, who is also dumped on him. However, I think he's just honest about the relationships, particularly that with Nina, which does not occur through passion or longing, but rather because of Viktor's rather passive or acquiescent nature. He is sad when his friend Sergei moves on because there is a genuine friendship there. But his main love is reserved for Misha the penguin.
Viktor forges other eccentric relationships, but as he becomes in more danger from the mafia, he is forced to flee, leaving Misha behind, but rest assured, the penguin is a character in the subsequent book, so presumably is alive to tell the tale.

I would probably give this 3.5 stars.
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on 23 January 2017
I couldn't get on with this book. I did not find it funny - despite the book jacket blurbs about how hilarious it was. I felt all the time that I was reading a very clever metaphor about the Ukraine, but I did not understand the metaphor so couldn't get the allusions/references. I read to the bitter end - because it was a choice in the book group I belonged to. My response was in the minority - others liked it.
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on 18 April 2018
I was recommended this by a friend and was surprised and delighted by the deep philosophical messages and the thoughtful prose. The text is beautifully and effectively translated and the story is at times funny, maudlin, sentimental, and disturbing. A wonderful read and I cannot wait to dive into the sequel!
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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 3 December 2013
A satiric story set in Kiev, Ukraine in 90s and following local author, turned to newspapers obituaries writer, through post-Soviet changes. He is making it through life accompanied by a penguin he got from Kiev Zoo, when it gave away animals as it could not feed them anymore.

Idea is very strong and atmosphere of grey Kiev, combined with grey life of main character, is excellent. You can understand his weak feelings - even when things start going well, he is not enjoying life, a company, his work... Everyhing seems bit pointless and days just drift by... Unfortunately, Kurkov drifts off in the middle, losing a story in its pointlessness.

Still, 4 stars.
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on 12 July 2013
Though some reviewers have called it a comic novel, it wasn't one that made me laugh out loud. It was thoroughly entertaining though, in its style (an excellent translation which doesn't read awkwardly at all) and in the events including the situation of having a pet penguin.

There is a sequel, and I'm looking forward to finding out what happens to the penguin.
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on 23 October 2014
Brilliant novel, should really be a penguin classic (get it?) Terrible pun aside this is an excellent book with a depth of thought into human psychology, like most East European/Russian classics are. Also comes with the most powerful ending that takes you by surprise.
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