Translated from Russian by George Bird
Published by Vintage Books, 2003, 228 pages. Original version published in 1996.
Victor lives in Kyiv with his pet penguin, Misha, whom he acquired when the local zoo was giving away animals they could no longer feed. Viktor makes a living writing obituaries (obelisks) for the newspaper Capital News.
His subjects are decided by the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, who sends Viktor the names of people—still alive—for whom he needs obituaries written. Viktor takes his work seriously, sometimes even interviewing the subject of his piece.
Viktor’s quiet, solitary life starts to change. He makes friends with a mysterious man called Misha (whom he refers to as Misha-not-penguin to differentiate him from the bird). Misha entrusts his young daughter Sonya to Viktor. He has to go away for a while and asks Victor in the meantime to look after her. Misha keeps in touch with him and eventually sends his niece, Nina, to help take care of the girl. One day, Misha disappears, leaving a big wad of cash for Sonya, and Viktor is left with his new family: Sonya, Nina and Misha (the penguin).
Then the subjects of his obituaries start to die, and Viktor worries that there is more to this than mere coincidence. Are the lists of names that the Editor-in-Chief sends him actually hit lists? And will there be a time when his name will be on one of those lists?
Andrey Kurkov paints a picture of post-Soviet Ukraine, with its corruption and power games. Viktor—like many of Kurkov’s protagonists—is an innocent. He merely observes what is happening around him: he does not want to ask too many questions or get involved any more than he needs to. But there comes a time when he cannot ignore what is becoming obvious. And when a man comes to his apartment, saying he was a friend of Misha-not-penguin, and wants to take Sonya away, Viktor stops being passive and puts his foot down, even when the man suggests it would be better for him to let Sonya go.
“…there had been talk of protection, of security, of which he knew nothing. His life was split in two halves, one known, one unknown. And what was in the other half? What did it consist of? He bit his lip. Riddles were the last thing he wanted to contend with.”
All Viktor wants to do is live a peaceful life. But once he gets involved in writing obituaries, this becomes increasingly hard. Men—including Misha-not-penguin—walk into his locked apartment at night while he is asleep, leaving him notes and packages. The world slowly closes in around Viktor, making it almost impossible for him to continue to live the way he wants to. By making Viktor an innocent, Kurkov brings out the absurdity of the situation and the corruption of those around him.
Misha is also an important character, albeit a non-speaking one. He is a penguin who lives in an apartment, and the only time he can be in water—where he belongs—is when Viktor fills the bath for him. Like Viktor, he is a little bewildered, sad and out of his depth. Adding the penguin to this story gives it an extra dimension, making it a little surreal.
This is the third book of Kurkov that I have read. I enjoy his black humour and caustic way of looking at how ordinary people’s lives are affected by the larger events that take place around them.
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Read my reviews of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees and The Bickford Fuse.
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