Providing a sequel to Death and the Penguin was quite the task, but Ukranian writer Andrey Kurkov was more than up to the job. The quirky first outing followed the life of Viktor, an introverted failed author who found a bizarre, but reliable, living writing obituaries for a local newspaper. Inadvertently wrapped up in all manner of governmental conniving, he had to flee the country to Antarctica to avoid being bumped off.
In this first book, he has an unusual pet – a King penguin called Misha. He’d picked this up from a local zoo which shut down (a true story, apparently) and let it frolic in his bathtub. In Penguin Lost, however, Viktor is able to win a seat back home to Kiev in an attempt to restart his life. In typical Kurkov style, lots of eccentric shenanigans await!
To be honest, we weren’t impressed the first time we read this. We found the ending particularly bothersome, but years later we re-read the sequel and preferred it to the original! Cripes, our brains sure do bounce around like giant bouncy balls, huh?
Not that we’d recommend readers new to this series start with the 2005 sequel first – this would be stupid. Begin at Death and the Penguin and then move on to Penguin Lost. However, second time around we found the sequel to be a more accomplished piece of writing.
It goes against type in that it’s not in keeping with the great Russian novel. Dostoevsky would have spun this into a 300,000 word epic, but this would have been superfluous. At first glance, Penguin Lost may appear like light reading – it’s short and you’ll breeze through the pages.
You’ll breeze through them because the writing is brilliant. As with many cultural texts these days, there’s an existential theme running throughout this series (of two books – Kurkov ended the story of Misha and Viktor in this book), plus a great deal of dark humour and general unease.
Upon arriving back in Kiev, he’s taken under the wing of a corrupt but charming mafia boss who is trying to get elected. As with many other seemingly absurd elements of the book (as in the existential sense), it constructs a world where it appears only Viktor is sane. However, it all builds towards him finding and reconnecting with his pet penguin, so make of that what you may. You’ll simply be charmed by these two novels, so pick them up pronto.
Kurkov tends to write short, sharp, surreal, and darkly humorous tales which deal with governmental corruption and unusual happenings. Naturally, with us there’s a general existential theme to things (we swear we don’t do this on purpose – everything we read seems to not towards the absurd), but there’s something there for everyone.
Recent works include the novella the Case of the General’s Thumb (2009) and the Bickford Fuse (2016). As with most novelists, he struggled to get his work published at first (receiving some 500 rejection letters), but his charming writing style clearly displayers that publishers often have no idea what they’re doing – these are brilliant novels and a world without Kurkov’s writing would be a lot worse off.