Thursday, 8 April 2010

Death and Penguins in a surreal Ukraine...

For my stay in Kiev, in the Ukraine, I spent a few days in the company of frustrated author Viktor and his pet penguin, Misha - a depressive creature that he rescued from the local zoo and who now resides in his apartment flat; eating frozen fish and enjoying the occasional dip in an ice-cold bath.

Such a scenario is indicative of the humorous, slightly surreal style of this debut novel; yet belies the darker undertones that run through this book (it is, after all, called ‘Death and the Penguin’).

In searching for suitable books for my journey I have made good use of the online bookstore Amazon – especially as it features some very insightful reviews of certain books by highly articulate readers. My decision to read this book for my Ukraine stopover was largely influenced by an well-written, considered and accurate review by David J Loftus, of Portland USA. In fact I cannot sum this work up better than the review itself and so I will, if I may, defer to Mr Loftus’ review as the main blog entry for this book:

“Viktor, a lonely journalist nearing 40, lives in Kiev with an Emperor penguin he adopted a year ago when the zoo gave up many of the animals it could no longer afford to feed. Misha, the penguin, lives a quiet, subdued life consisting of little more than a steady diet of fish and cold baths.

“Happily, a newspaper hires Viktor to write advance obituaries: summings-up of notable persons' lives to be kept on file for the day the subject dies. It's steady work for decent pay. The editor even encourages Viktor to stretch out the pieces with a little literary-philosophical content.

“One day, a sinister but friendly visitor passes along his own obit assignments for very good money. When Viktor complains about having composed more than a hundred obits but having nothing published, the visitor asks which Viktor thinks is his best piece ... and within a day, the subject is dead! Complications and further deaths ensue.

“More assignments come from the mobster ("Misha-not-penguin"), who then leaves his young daughter with Viktor "for a short time," but never returns. Little Sonya comes with a big packet of money, so Viktor is able to hire 20-year-old Nina as a day nanny for her. Soon, this quasi-family is settled in for the long haul -- with their penguin -- except that more and more of Viktor's obituary subjects get killed!

“Death and the Penguin is written in a dry, simple style. The chapters are short, the narrative rarely embellished. Though there is plenty of humor, it is not laugh-out-loud but of the wry-smile-to-oneself variety.

“This is not magic realism, but straight realistic narrative of people (and penguin) behaving quite plausibly under increasingly-odd circumstances. It's a queerly unsensational story that seems perversely matter-of-fact, but accelerates into a sudden and very satisfying climax.”

My one quibble with the above review is that – whilst I found the ending sudden to the point of abruptness – I did not find it satisfying, and was left pondering over too many loose ends (especially in regards to Misha!). However, I note that the author Andrey Kurkov, has written a sequel to this novel (“Penguin Lost”) which seeks to resolve this issue. Whilst bound to my 'Round the World' literary trip for the foreseeable future, this is one book I will definitely be seeking out when I have completed my journey!

And now I make my way from Kiev to the capital of neighbouring Slovakia: Bratislava (represented by the visceral novel “The Wooden Village” by native author Peter Pi's-Tanek). Having had enough of plodding trains and bumpy car journeys for a while, I elect to make the trip between these two capital cities by plane. Via a taxi, I get a cheap flight with Malev Hungarian Airlines from Kiev airport (actually known as 'Boryspil International Airport', which is 18 miles east of Kiev itself) leaving at 16.15 and - after a brief stopover back in Budapest - I arrive in Bratislava at 21.00 in the evening, from where I get the N61 bus into the city centre...

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