A writer, organized crime, and a penguin: these are the wild mix from which Andrey Kurkov forms his bleakly comic novel Death and the Penguin (translation by George Bird).
In the post-Soviet Ukraine, Viktor, a writer who has found no success in novels or short stories, obtains a job preparing obituaries for a newspaper’s files. When the subjects of his pieces begin dying off in suspicious circumstances, Viktor finds himself the entangled pawn of a shady power struggle that spans the celebrities, the mob, and the government. Lost in a maze of unclear alliances and loyalties, he attempts to discover the part he must play.
Misha, a penguin Viktor adopted when the zoo could no longer afford its animals, provides his counterpoint, another lonely figure out of place and lost in unfamiliar territory, and elevates the novel above genre crime fare. The pet penguin confined to a small apartment is an absurd departure from the nebulously threatening world Viktor becomes a part of, but, it becomes clear, it is no stranger than this unpredictable web of friends and foes. The co-solitude of these two lost souls becomes a poignant image that grounds the novel as Viktor finds relief from his own displacement in a profound sense of duty toward his companion.