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Death and the Penguin

Death and the Penguin - Andrey Kurkov At one time, I wrote trailers for television. Like the main character of this novel, I could access reams of background details and reduce them to a few crisp lines. Also like the main character, I seldom saw the shows themselves or any of the results. One Christmas, I wrote only trailers for the science shows, ignoring all the Christmas shows. My manager became quite emotional.

So I can identify strongly with the main character's artistic love of writing obituaries. It's a love which is the source of the best joke in the book. I can also appreciate his insistence on plodding through the rest of life, without looking up. Maybe if I was reading it on a beach in California, surrounded by yawling weak-minded tan junkies, I would find this way of living in reality profound somehow. But I am visiting Bulgaria (see update)and this was tedious until 2/3 of the book. Still, his description of the penguin expert's living room, with its decades old furniture and cabinet full of curios was so like the house of my grandparents, I could reach out and feel it.

Another review mentioned predicting the ending quite early. So did I, I think, if we mean the role the main character would take and where it would lead him. But the book got interesting and made me go quite still just about the time a large package arrived for Nina. I've seen my share of tragedy, but that moment made me really mourn.

I thought about this book more than I expected when it was over. It's a little like the movie Barton Fink, which made me cold with the confusion of self-realization when I was 20. I don't think the main character was ever very likeable. He was selfish, colourless and self-aggrandizing about his writing. Whatever you call this narrative point of view, which focuses only on his limited thoughts in a third person omniscient way (third person singular, limited narrator?), it turned out to be a highly effective way of making the main character sound like a guileless pawn of the usual state apparatus. Nevertheless, I don't think the author was criticizing the main character's selfishness or focus on self-preservation.

But that brings up the question of the penguin. The penguin is essentially an incessant, plodding, slightly threatening, slightly comical, but absolutely unique demand in the man's life. It is really his ineffable spirit I think.

I'd like to think such a book, published in certain slavic countries, would drive home the terror and dangers of simply plodding through life. But this was written in Ukraine, like the first satirical realism of Gogol. It can't match Gogol and it can't use realism to make realism sound ridiculous. I'm certain I've missed something by writing this review too early, but I'm also sorry to write a review so long for such a simple and short book.