The funny side of Russian Existentialism

March is National Reading Month. To that end, I will read so much and post so often you will be sick of me by April 1.

My last excursion into Russian literature wasn’t great, but I don’t write off a whole genre based on one book. I was drawn back because this author has such a good story (personal) and, to be honest, I couldn’t pass up the title.

death and the penguinAndrey Kurkov, according to his bio in the back of “Death and the Penguin,” is a Ukrainian writer who graduated from the Kiev Foreign Languages Institute. I’ll quote the rest because I find what it doesn’t say intriguing (the italics are mine).”After graduating from the Kiev Foreign Languages Institute, he resisted pressure (from who?) to become a military translator for his military service and instead opted to serve as a prison warder (a what?) in Odessa. Afterwards, he worked as a journalist and film cameraman, then borrowed money to self-publish his first books, which he sold himself on the sidewalks of Kiev. (Seriously?) He is now one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers in Ukrainian history (not to diminish his accomplishments, but name just one other Ukrainian author), and his books have been translated into 25 languages.”

Viktor is a writer living alone with his depressive penguin Misha he adopted when the zoo fell on hard times and couldn’t feed its animals anymore. They live together in a bleak apartment in bleak Kiev during a bleak winter. He’s an author in search of his novel or short story or whatever it is he will write to make him famous and he finds it, quite by accident, in the obituary department of a national newspaper.

He is asked to write obituaries for those who haven’t died yet. A common newspaper practice — I can’t tell you how many times, on late holiday shifts with not enough work for all the people we had to staff, I edited Rosa Parks’ obit before she died. But these are a little different: He gets to interview the subject, lets them tell him what to put in the obit. And Viktor is encouraged to be creative. He creates a bizarre new type of obituary, part literary, part factual, that the editor likes.

The editor likes it so much, he asks Viktor to write more, but not to do the interviews (too time consuming.) Instead, he gives Viktor research from which to work. Words are underlined in the research that Viktor is required to put into the obit. Viktor willingly agrees.

Before long another man (whose name, also Misha but called, always Misha-non-penguin kept me laughing) starts bringing Viktor information about obituaries he wants written and agrees to pay Viktor “double at least what the priciest whore charges.” These obituaries are of players in the Russian crime syndicates and they soon start dying. All this takes place in an undated era that seems long ago: Viktor uses a typewriter and telephones are attached to the walls of homes, yet it still feels of the moment.

I’m going to be perfectly honest: I’m not sure what was happening in much of the book. But I had a great time reading it. Viktor befriends a local militiaman, Sergey, and tries to avoid a shady friend of Misha-non-penguin also named Sergey. The editor tells Viktor to go underground for a while and then the editor must hide out for his own safety. Misha-non-penguin drops off his daughter at Viktor’s house, also for safekeeping, and Sergey the militiaman sends his niece to Viktor to take care of the child. Then there are more murders, lots of drinking, a penguinologist who seems to have something to hide, and health problems for Misha that eventually mean Viktor has to make a decision.

Viktor is apparently at the center of a vast conspiracy, but he doesn’t know what it could be or what his role is in it. He seems satisfied with the answer to his one question early on: Everything will be explained when his services are no longer required. So Viktor simply trods on through a world where everyone seems to do just what’s required, asking no questions. Even the sun is described as “a conscientious caretaker” that every morning “climbed into the sky and shone its brightest.”

Though I was often confused, I gave up trying to make much sense out of it all, and just enjoyed the inspired silliness and the dark shadows that accompany it.


2 thoughts on “The funny side of Russian Existentialism

  1. Gogol was Ukrainian (Nabokov describes Gogol’s depiction of Russia pretty much as fantasy, his having spent such little time in Russia, hardly the “realism” Gogol’s work is billed as), and my guess is there probably are a number of other names we recognize as Russian that are really Ukrainian. For instance, many of the Jewish emigres we think of as European-American were Ukrainian. So it goes with vanquishment and rising from the ashes.


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