I’ve never been one to read sets of books, and I’ve never been one to read a book given to me. It stemmed from primary school. I hated the books that we were told to read, but thrived on any books that I had chosen myself. But rarely even then did I find a book that was good enough to make me read the next in the series. And if I ever did read multiple books of a series, they would never be read in order. It was a mild form of protest.
Earlier this year things changed when my boyfriend handed me Andrey Kurkov’s Death And The Penguin– the first in Kurkov’s penguin-set. The book sounded compelling. A struggling writer. A pet penguin. A quest he can’t get out of. At the time, the premise felt like the exact thing that I needed to be reading- I myself was amidst a project and somewhat torn between what I saw as a complex stream of consciousness, and writers-block.
“First, a stone landed a metre from Viktor’s foot. He glanced back. Two louts stood grinning, one of whom stopped, picked up another from a section of broken cobble, and bowled it at him skittles-fashion. Viktor made off at something approaching a racing walk and rounded the corner, telling himself the main thing was not to run.” (Death And The Penguin)
Just before I began, the thought of a second, and then a third book worried me. What if it was awful? Or badly written? But skip to reading the book and thankfully none of that was an issue.
Death And The Penguin is a book that weaves in life’s most serious and thought-provoking situations amongst a black comedy. In post-Soviet isolation, protagonist Viktor Zolotaryov is a meek man trudging through life with his penguin Misha; only for a devotion to his craft being turned on its head as his life follows in equal fashion.
Death And The Penguin, along with its prequel Penguin Lost, are beautifully written tales. Harrowing in part. Somewhat graphic. Its pathos is captivating and is continued from the first to the second book almost exactly. Lacking somewhat in Penguin Lost however, is the penguin. But that’s his pursuit, his goal and it’s never overlooked. What can also be said is that Penguin Lost is formed around a sentimentality. Much of the latter of the story is born out of nostalgic moments that circumvent authors possibilities. And though it is unfair to suggest that it looses entirely the intellectuality of its predecessor, it does fall somewhat short of more credible moments.
“It was a night of thunderstorms. Every so often Viktor got up and watched the lighting from his attic window, thinking of Sonya and Nina crying, of the thirty Penguin Lost notices, and of the image makers’ computer” (Penguin Lost)
Whether Kurkov is conscious of it, the penguin books do answer the most essential and fundamental questions at every point: Who wants what from who? What happened if they don’t get it? Why now?