“The less you know, the longer you live.”
Death and the Penguin by Russian author Andrey Kurkov reflects Russia’s tradition of Absurdist literature. It’s the story of a man, a would-be writer named Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov who lives with a penguin named Misha in a Kiev apartment. Viktor and his penguin live in a post-Soviet society in which gangsters rule and run amuck fairly untouched by such trivialities and vague notions such as ‘the law.’ As readers we are supposed to accept the basic premise that it’s perfectly acceptable for Viktor to have an emotional penguin waddling around his apartment, and while this may seem absurd (back to that Russian tradition of Absurdist literature again), there is some truth to the story that the Kiev zoo did give away animals to anyone would feed them. The Kiev zoo emerges in the novel as a place that’s in a sad condition, and its economic trials are indicative of the sorry state of society. It’s worth noting that Viktor leads a simple, spartan life that becomes horribly complicated and compromised once he steps out the door and accepts employment.
So when the novel begins, Viktor has written a short story which he submits to a newspaper in the hopes of getting it published. Viktor is “trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose.” While the story is rejected, he’s offered a job by the editor of Capital News as the writer of obituaries. The editor explains that the paper wants obituaries for people who haven’t died yet:
“This is highly confidential,” he said. “What we’re after is a gifted obituarist, master of the succinct. Snappy, pithy, way-out stuff’s the idea.”
This seems a little odd, but the editor argues that the paper wants obituaries on hand and ready for print. Viktor swallows that story and deliberating that he’ll be creating something “new and unusual,” he takes the job. The pay isn’t overwhelming, but it’s enough for Viktor to begin being able to afford a few luxuries. The work isn’t demanding and life seems to improve a bit for Viktor and Misha. Viktor’s formerly narrow existence begins to expand—he makes friends with District Militiaman, Sergey, is saddled with the care of a small, precocious child whose father is in hiding, and he even gains a girlfriend of sorts.
Even as Viktor’s life becomes materially easier, his peace of mind is stripped away as it gradually dawns on him that the obituaries are basically a hitlist, and that he’s involved up to his neck with gangsters. Viktor doesn’t ask nearly enough questions as he finds it easier to bury his head in the sand when it comes to the true nature of his work. He notes, “it wasn’t easy to remain honest and upright.” Early on, after the first obituary death, celebrating over a glass of cognac, Viktor asks the editor:
“How did he die?” Viktor asked.
“Fell from a sixth-story window–was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night.”
Obviously this is a suspicious death, but Viktor chooses to ignore the alarm bells and he continues. After all, he’s well-paid and what’s more he’s finally getting published for his flowery obituaries. The plot places Viktor in various moral dilemmas, and through this the reader sees the complexity of one man’s moral make-up. Some things he doesn’t quibble about, but then other situations cause a great deal of strain. Here’s Viktor asking the editor, Igor, about the mysterious death of a fellow journalist:
“What did happen in Kharkov, Igor?” he asked.
Sighing, the Chief poured cognac and gave Viktor an inhibited, arrested sort of look.
“Bowed his head did our brave young Red,” he crooned softly:
“cruelly shot through his Komosol heart…
As a newspaper, we’ve had our losses. This one’s our seventh. Before long we’ll be unveiling a pantheon … Still, no skin off your nose! The less you know, the longer you live!” said the Chief. Then, in quite a different, somehow weary voice, and looking hard at him, he added “And it’s not your business any longer. Just that you know a bit more than others do … OK….”
Viktor regretted his curiosity. The whole ambience of their little tete à tete celebration had been lost.
Misha is arguably the most charming character in the book. There are moments when Viktor sinks deeper into his dangerous relationship with the warring gangsters, and this seems to trouble Misha. It takes some time for Viktor to catch on to the real purpose of the obituaries, but Misha smells a rat right away. Consequently, Viktor sleeps well at night while Misha becomes an insomniac. We might expect the relationship between man and dog to be symbiotic, and this is exactly what occurs between Viktor and Misha:
Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving away hungry animals to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a king penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.
The subject of moral corrosion is deadly serious, but Kurkov writes with a light, tragicomic touch. While Viktor remains ignorant of the true nature of his work (obviously a decision on his part, as he’s told on various occasions to go into hiding or to stay away from the office) the penguin injects an element of goodness into the plot. There’s a good deal of absurdity here thanks to Viktor’s obliviousness and then uncertainty when it comes to selecting a course of action, and in spite of the fact that people are blown up, disappear, and fall out of sixth story windows, the plot plays out with delightful black humour. As the story continues The Death and the Penguin explores the moral dilemmas faced by Viktor, and how he either ignores the obvious signals, talks himself into continued involvement, or finds himself going along with morally questionable acts. In the morality department, oddly enough the penguin comes out on top. Originally published in 1996, this novella is about 150 pages, and there’s a sequel: Penguin Lost