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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Death and the Penguin

Andrey Kurkov

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To purchase Death and the Penguin

Title: Death and the Penguin
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Death and the Penguin - US
Death and the Penguin - UK
Death and the Penguin - Canada
Death and the Penguin - India
Le Pingouin - France
Picknick auf dem Eis - Deutschland
Picnic sul ghiaccio - Italia
Muerte con pingüino - España
  • Original title: Пикник на льду
  • Translated by George Bird

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Our Assessment:

A- : nicely understated satire

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 26/5/2001 Martin Booth
FAZ . 21/5/1999 Martin Ebel
The Independent . 28/7/2001 Lesley Chamberlain
London Rev. of Books B 7/6/2001 Gabriele Annan
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 11/11/2001 Ken Kalfus
The Observer . 17/3/2002 Leo Benedictus
The Spectator A 5/5/2001 John de Falbe
The Times . 4/4/2001 Anthea Lawson
TLS . 4/5/2001 Joanna Griffiths
World Lit. Today . Summer/2002 Tatiana Nazarenko
Die Zeit . 11/9/2003 Tobias Gohlis

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Andrey Kurkov's novel is a minor tragi-comic masterpiece. (...) This appears at first to be a bizarre comedy but it darkens, gripping the reader and drawing him into the grey world of post-Communist Russia, where serious crime flourishes, revenge and greed are paramount, violence gratuitous and terrifyingly sudden, and where anything can be bought with a crisp American dollar bill" - Martin Booth, Daily Telegraph

  • "Literarisch ist Picknick auf dem Eis nicht weiter bemerkenswert, rechnet man die Erkenntnis ab, daß auch die russische Literatur Unterhaltungsromane zuproduzieren in der Lage ist. Daß der Autor vor allem als Drehbuchautor arbeitet, merkt man seiner Prosa an (.....) Diese Unterkühltheit ist aber auch das stilistische Äquivalent einer Haltung, ohne die ein Leben in dieser Gesellschaft nicht mehr zu ertragen ist." - Martin Ebel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Death and the Penguin lives and breathes the puzzled, dislodged dignity of its better-than-human hero. It may turn out to be a minor classic and get Russian literature going again after the post-Soviet hiatus." - Lesley Chamberlain, The Independent

  • "He writes especially well about children (and penguins) (.....) Death and the Penguin has charm; but as a thriller -- even as a caricature of a thriller -- it's too full of implausibilities and too rough at the edges to work well. It's fun to read and worth it for the sense of Kiev that it evokes: an agreeable city -- more modern than one might imagine -- only with black splodges of mafialand sprinkled over its map." - Gabriele Annan, London Review of Books

  • "Kurkov writes with a light, deadpan tone in a style reminiscent of Donald Barthelme, and his absurdist voice stays level as the subjects of Viktor's obelisks start dying in abrupt circumstances (.....) Although Death and the Penguin strains to succeed as an existential thriller, it does offer a striking portrait of post-Soviet alienation." - Ken Kalfus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "With his functional, alienating prose, grey like the book's Soviet cityscape, and a deadpan sense of the absurd, Kurkov develops this strong premise into an urbane satire of the structures of corruption that communism left behind." - Leo Benedictus, The Observer

  • "The penguin is the lynchpin of a Bulgakov-style social satire, where the improbable comes to look more and more sensible against the depiction of what is real. (...) (P)athos and humour shine through to make this a black comedy of rare distinction, and the penguin is an invention of genius." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "The deadpan tone works perfectly, and it will be a hard-hearted reader who is not touched by Viktor's relationship with his unusual pet." - Anthea Lawson, The Times

  • "Andrei Kurkov falls short of the vigorous bizarreries of Bulgakov or Kharms, but he has written a successfully brooding novel, which creates an enduring sense of dismay and strangeness." - Joanna Griffiths, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Andrey Kurkov's novel, Death and the Penguin, originally published in 1996, is definitely one of the most attention-grabbing and interesting thrillers written in contemporary Ukraine, regardless of language. (...) Kurkov's novel is a provocative work raising many important issues. The translation by George Bird is well done, and those who read this book will enjoy it." - Tatiana Nazarenko, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Viktor Zolotaryov is a frustrated writer living in Kiev. A year before the story opens he had adopted a king penguin named Misha; the zoo had been "giving away hungry animals to anyone able to feed them" and Viktor -- just abandoned by his girlfriend -- had taken him in. The unusual pet is his only companion, and together they lead a lonely and somewhat dreary existence.
       Things change when Viktor finds some professional success, not with his short stories but by writing obituaries. He is hired by the editor in chief of the Capital Times to prepare obituaries -- obelisks, as they call them -- of people who aren't dead yet. He gets paid very well, but he doesn't get public recognition, as the editor insists the works be signed with a pseudonym, A Group of Friends.
       Viktor shows a flair for writing these obituaries, just as the editor wants: "the dead written about as they've never been written about before". The pseudonym isn't much of an issue at first either, since he's writing about people who are still alive; instead, he's disappointed that he's not getting published. Soon enough that changes. Indeed, soon enough the people whose obituaries he writes show a remarkable propensity for dying (or rather: getting themselves killed).
       Death and the Penguin is full of death. The obituary-victims aren't at the forefront -- Viktor generally just hears about their demise when he reads about it in the newspaper -- but there's death all about anyway. A burglar gets blown up near a dacha where Viktor spends New Years, a penguin-expert he consults has cancer. And eventually dubious elements pay him well to show up at funerals with his penguin -- the penguin becoming de rigeur at certain funerals.
       Viktor has got himself mixed up in a pretty bad scene, but he feels like he remains apart from it, doing his job and not asking too many questions (or trying to connect the dots, until it all becomes too obvious). His editor tells him to lay low for a while (and does so himself), and there are other warnings, but Viktor isn't entirely sure what he's mixed up in. His boss reminds him that it's better this way: "the moment you are told what the point of your work is, you're dead."
       Along the way Viktor also inherits another ward, the young daughter of Misha-non-penguin (an associate of his boss), Sonya. Like the penguin, she's not much trouble and doesn't require much care, but eventually Viktor also hires a nanny for her, Nina. It all winds up making for a non-traditional yet somehow functional family.
       Not that much happens: Viktor makes a friend or two, but can't really get close to anyone (not even Sonya and Nina), and it's an unstable world around him. Death is the only constant -- and it is very constant. Eventually Viktor's situation gets more precarious -- and there's another blow when his penguin falls ill, requiring a heart-transplant (a small child's will do ...) if he is to survive.
       Kurkov offers a surprisingly genial picture of bleak life in post-Soviet Ukraine. Corruption is rampant, and mafia-style crime too. There's some generosity in the human relationships, but what warmth there is is buried pretty deep. It's a dark book, and yet Kurkov tones down the bleakness so that it is not oppressive. It is a satire too, but Kurkov's touch is light and deft (the deadpan penguin scenes, as it waddles along nearly everywhere, the best example). It's pleasantly surreal -- despite also being a straightforward and, in most respects, realistic portrait of Kiev life (and death) in the 1990s.
       Very enjoyable, nicely done.

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Death and the Penguin: Reviews: Other books by Andrey Kurkov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Andrey Kurkov (Andrej Kurkow, Andreï Kourkov, Андрей Юрьевич Курков) was born in Leningrad in 1961 and now lives in Kiev.

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