Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Death and the Penguin - Andrey Kurkov

This is a dark, comic tale that could perhaps only have been written by a Russian, yet which transcends any national boundaries. Set in Kiev, it concerns Viktor, an aspiring writer who produces obituaries for a newspaper and his pet, a penguin called Misha. This alone would afford comic potential, but the story is about something else altogether – Viktor’s discovery that there are sinister undertones to his work.

It would be difficult to say more without giving anything of the slender plot away. Yet it is not the plot which is important. It is the absurd, almost surreal existence that Viktor leads in a strange looking-glass world that is, at one and the same time, depressingly real.

Kurkov writes in a deceptively simple style (an assumption based on the translation by, appropriately enough, George Bird). He uses short chapters and an episodic structure, sketching black and white vignettes that possess a surprising amount of detail. Many of the scenes remain vivid in the memory, perhaps because they are such everyday things with which we are all familiar. Yet they build, layer upon layer, into a highly complex philosophical and psychological study of a people and a country living in the aftermath of a failed social experiment.

Which makes it sound like a dull book. It is not. Shot through with dry, dark humour and leavened by a situation reminiscent of N F Simpson, this is a book well worth reading. Vibrant, beautifully constructed, and having plenty to say about social and personal responsibilities and morality, this is a book that should be read by British authors who would do well to consider how much better this is than most of the tired hack work that passes for literature in the UK.