Death in a cold climate

I’ll be honest: I love book cover art. LOVE it.

Unless I’m buying a classic, a great cover can well be the decisive factor in choosing a book  – and even in the case of a classic, if several editions with different covers exist, I always buy the one I like the most.

So. Andrey Kurkov‘s Death and the Penguin (1996, Vintage Books). Spotted in an independent book shop in Chelsea. Amazing yellow cover (I also happen to love yellow). Imaginative use of the penguin figure. Front cover tagline:

In today’s Ukraine, all that stands between one man and murder by the mafia is a penguin

Must buy!


Vintage cover (source:

The reader is promised a “tragicomic masterpiece” and “chilling black comedy”. There’s quite possible something wrong with me and my reading of the book, but despite the absurd figure of the penguin and many of the book’s similarly absurd events failed to, well, amuse me. Not a bad read at all, no. But comic? Not so much.

The book begins in Ukraine’s capital Kiev with the aspiring writer of fiction, Viktor Zolotaryov, living quite frankly a boring, unaccomplished life* with his pet penguin Misha, who he’d rescued from a local zoo giving away animals it could no longer care for. Viktor’s short stories aren’t a success with Igor Lvovitch, the editor in chief of Capital News, but he finally finds his niche when given the task to write speculative obituaries, i.e. obituaries of notable people who haven’t yet died, for Lvovitch’s paper. Using the pseudonym A Group of Friends, his obelisks certainly have a style of their own:

Much against his will, the departed acquiesced in the murder of his younger brother, the latter having chanced upon a list of shareholders of an as yet unprivatized washing-machine factory. However, the monument erected by the deceased in memory of his brother has become a veritable adornment of the cemetery. Often life makes it necessary to kill, while the death of someone close makes it necessary to live on regardless… Everything in this world is united by virtue of blood.

The editor in chief loves it, and a success story is born. Or at least until the people Viktor has written obituaries on begin to die – naturally or unnaturally – and he is forced to attend their funerals with Misha the penguin in tow, or else…!

I did quite like the book, although it wasn’t funny as I’d hoped. It was certainly a dramatic change in scenery from The Talented Mr Ripley‘s Italy. One of the qualities I actually enjoyed the most about Death and the Penguin was the depiction of the harsh, long, snowy winter, so similar to that of my native Finland. Another highlight is of course Misha the penguin, itself (or himself?) a figure of loneliness and depression:

A little later, the penguin emerged from behind the dark-green settee, and sauntered towards the half-open living-room door. En route he paused by the sleeping girl, gazed thoughtfully at her, then continued on into the corridor. Pushing the next door open, he proceeded to the kitchen.

Sitting asleep in his mater’s place, head resting on the table, was a strange man.

For several minutes the penguin considered him, standing motionless by the door, then turned about and retraced his steps.

I might read Death and the Penguin‘s sequel, Penguin Lost, just to find out what happens to Misha.



The book is written in a laconic style and in short chapters that are quick to read. Throughout the book I expected something really exciting and scary to happen. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler if I say that nothing did, or at least nothing exciting enough for me.

It’s possible some of the humour and excitement of the original was literally lost in translation. I’d say I’m very familiar with reading translated fiction – my mother tongue is Finnish after all, which means that before university I would have read most foreign books as translations. In fact, one of the most recent translated books I read in Finnish was Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. Perhaps it was a matter of excellent translation, but while reading it I never stopped and noticed I wasn’t reading the book in the original language.

George Bird‘s translation of Death and the Penguin however… felt a bit empty somehow. Lacking in content and colour. I found myself thinking I wish I could’ve read another translation of it for the sake of comparison. Sadly, this option was not available, so it’s impossible to know whether this feeling of lacking was a feature of Kurkov’s original text or something that happened in translation. I do appreciate that Kurkov writes in a laconic style, but I feel this was a question of more than just that.

I don’t want to sound too disappointed or as if I didn’t like and enjoy the book at all. I did enjoy it. For me, it just wasn’t what I would have expected. Still, I’d raise a glass of Finlandia vodka to Viktor, Misha, and Andrey.

*Distinct similarities with Auster‘s City of Glasswithout the penguin of course!


Death and the Penguin reviews

The Guardian
The New York Times

Kurkov talks about his book on the BBC World Book Club 


andrey-kurkov-007Andrey Yuryevich Kurkov (1961-) is a Ukrainian novelist and an independent thinker who writes in Russian. He is the author of 18 novels, 7 books for children, and about 20 documentary, fiction and TV movie scripts.





(featured image source:


Living the High Life in Italy

Azure blue skies, the intense rays of the sun warming up your skin, red swimsuits, a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta made just right. Welcome aboard the 7.47 Thameslink service to Bedford!

Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) was my daily commute read last month, and boy, could the world it depicted be any further from the rush hour trains racing through the grey English winter landscape. Despite having (yet again… I do see a pattern forming here) unpleasant protagonists, Highsmith’s well-crafted novel paints an enchanting picture of 1950s Italy with its quaint little villages and buzzing cities, all seemingly crowded with cash-flashing young Americans eager to take on the habits and culture of the Old Continent.

Beautiful cover design from Vintage.

Beautiful cover design from Vintage

The Talented Mr Ripley tells the story of the American Tom Ripley, an ambitious but poor young man with a severe inferiority complex he tries to make up for by impersonating other people, especially those he perceives to be more successful than him, by forging signatures, and being quite frankly a general dick. Not that other people easily notice his dick-ness – he’s highly skilled in making just the right impression. When ship-building magnate Mr Greenleaf the elder suggests that he go to Italy and try to persuade Mr Greenleaf the younger, who spends his time and his father’s money there painting, sailing, and sightseeing, return to the family business in the States, it’s an offer Tom can’t refuse particularly as the police are just about to find out about his shady activities in New York. Soon he is off on a fancy cruise ship, travel naturally paid for by Mr Greenleaf the elder:

Lying in his deckchair, fortified morally by the luxurious surrounding and inwardly by the abundance of well-prepared food, he tried to take an objective look at his past life. The last four years had been for the most part a waste, there was no denying that. A series of haphazard jobs, long perilous intervals of with no job at all and consequent demoralization because of having no money, and then taking up with stupid, silly people in order not to be lonely, or because they could offer him something for a while.

As the passage makes clear, Tom isn’t fond of many people, and even when he is attracted to a person it has more to do with their position and status than with anything else. Finding himself in the village of Mongibello, he infiltrates his way into the company of Dick Greenleaf and his friend-girlfriend Marge Sherwood, who he finds chubby, stupid, and annoying. Although enthralled by Dick’s lifestyle and confidence, Tom’s opinion of him isn’t much more positive: he’s boring, deceitful (!), and his painting is embarrassingly bad. When Mr Greenleaf the elder’s money transmissions to Tom end and Dick and Marge grow disenchanted with their guest, conflict ensues. Add to the mix a murder or two, a couple tight spots for the personality-changing Tom, and lots of lovely depictions of food, scenery, and culture, and you have The Talented Mr Ripley.

I’d watched the 1999 film of the same name, directed by Anthony Minghella, several years previously, and as I’m especially interested in adaptation theory, I watched the film again to compare it to Highsmith’s original text. It’s clear the film is at most inspired by the book. Minghella has kept most of the main characters but changed their personality to the degree that their motivations are completely altered. Tom has been made into a gay man in love with Dickie – in the book, Tom dismisses any suggestion of being queer as ridiculous – while Dickie, although in a relationship with Marge who is played by the non-chubby, gorgeous young Gwyneth Paltrow, spends most of his time courting the village’s girls and is a much more raucous character than the novel’s Dickie the painter. Minor characters have been added, and the ending changed entirely. The film is really best viewed as an independent piece of work, definitely still worth watching if only for the even more gorgeous young Jude Law.

jude law

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Tom Ripley do the 1950s look

This book was a lovely little surprise. I hadn’t realised it had actually been published in the 1950s, that there were two other books in the series on Tom Ripley, and that another one of her books had been made into the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train.

Highsmith’s characters are well-crafted, and the story has just enough suspense to keep you waiting for Tom’s next move. As you may have already guessed, I particularly loved the passages describing Tom’s life in Southern Europe:

He bought two evening newspapers, tucked them under his arm and walked on, over a little arched bridge, through a long street hardly six feet wide full of leather shops and men’s shirt shops, past windows glittering with jewelled boxes that spilled out necklaces and rings like the boxes Tom has always imagined that treasures spilled out of in fairy tales. He liked the fact that Venice had no cars. It made the city human. The streets were like veins, he thought, and the people were the blood, circulating everywhere. He took another street back and crossed the great quadrangle of San Marco’s for the second time. Pigeons everywhere, in the air, in the light of shops – even at night, pigeons walking along under people’s feet like sightseers themselves in their home town!

Viva Italia, I say!




The Talented Mr Ripley reviews

The New York Times (by Jeannette Winterson)
Persephone Magazine

Listen to Patricia Highsmith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (1979)


patriciahighsmith2_recortadoPatricia Highsmith (1921–1995) was an American novelist and short story writer, known for her psychological thrillers, which led to more than two dozen film adaptations.






Lost in New York vol I

Hi there, world…  again.

As you can see, there has been a bit of a hiatus in this blog. I did have a great review on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House, 2000) by Michael Chabon all lined up and ready to be published but for some reason which I have already forgotten about computer said no and the entire text vanished. I was overtaken by such sense of frustration that I simply lost interest in the whole blog. Plus, life happened as well.

But, enough of explanations already! I am back to books!

Having spent the last six months doing a communications internship in London, I have taken advantage of the wonderful selection of the city’s bookshops and consequently have a sweet pile of literary goodness waiting to be devoured, including some classic and not-so-well-known Russian / Eastern European books, which can be surprisingly difficult to find in my home country of Finland. I most recently finished Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, but before reviewing it I want to dedicate some words to City of Glass, which is the first part of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy.

City of Glass, published by Faber&Faber in 1985 but with a timeless feel, was for me one of those stories that creep up on you. Being familiar with Auster’s name but not his work, I was drawn to – as I often am in books – a great opening paragraph:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.

If that doesn’t pique your interest I don’t know what does!

City of Glass tells the story of a writer of detective fiction called Quinn. Quinn’s uneventful existence is transformed when he receives a call for detective Paul Auster, and decides to play along and channel the hero of his own books by pretending that he is indeed detective Auster. He then gets involved in a strange case where a man called Peter Stillman, so abused as a child he is incapable of normal speech, fears for his life believing his father and abuser, also called Peter Stillman, has come to look for him in New York. To add a further layer to the story, Quinn meets the author Paul Auster and his family, whereas the story itself seems to have been recorded by someone else entirely.

The book is just as fascinating and strange as it sounds. I wasn’t compelled by Auster’s matter-of-fact style of writing at first, especially after having not so long ago read books such as Eleanor Catton’s wonderful The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both of which are written in elaborate, poetic language. But the further I advanced in the story, the more interested I became in how Auster approaches the theme of identity. In his quest to understand the behaviour and motivations of the senior Peter Stillman and assuming the role of a detective, Quinn is drained of his own personality to the point where he finally almost becomes one with the little doorway where he is huddled monitoring the younger Peter Stillman’s home.

He was Paul Auster now, and with each step he took he tried to fit more comfortably into the strictures of that transformation. Auster was no more than a name to him, a husk without content. To be Auster meant being a man with no interior, no thoughts. And if there were no thoughts available to him, if his own inner life had been made inaccessible, then there was no place for him to retreat to.

There is an understated element of humour in Auster’s novel, which serves to soften the story which is, at the end, an incredibly harsh depiction of a man who voluntarily destroys himself.

His ambition was to eat as little as possible, and in this way stave off hunger. In the best of all worlds, he might have been able to approach absolute zero, but he did not want to be overly ambitious in his present circumstances.

Having of late read books with particularly unpleasant main characters – Highsmith‘s The Talented Mr RipleyGillian Flynn‘s Gone Girl and Tartt‘s The Goldfinch (and yes, I consider Theo Decker to be a very unpleasant protagonist!) – it was a nice change to be able to follow Quinn with sympathy. All in all, City of Glass is a very evocative and thought-provoking read. As the blurb of The New York Trilogy suggests, Auster’s other two stories will also be “variations on the classical detective story”. I look forward to finding out how they differ from City of Glass.


City of Glass reviews

The New York Times
The Guardian


nyt23f-2-webPaul Auster (1947-) is an American author and director whose writing blends absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction, and the search for identity and personal meaning in works such as The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), The Book of Illusions (2002), and The Brooklyn Follies (2005).