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
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 Glass, without the penguin of course!
Death and the Penguin reviews
The New York Times
Kurkov talks about his book on the BBC World Book Club
Andrey 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: http://bit.ly/1ESGYSK)