“You can’t trust those you pay a lot to. Especially when they show such a taste for luxury.”
Andrey Kurkov’s entertaining novel Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. In the first book, unemployed Kiev writer Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov appears to be in luck when he accepts a job writing obituaries. He doesn’t pay too much attention to the fact that he’s writing obituaries of people who haven’t died yet, but after a while, as those he’s profiled start dying in various creative ways, he begins to ask questions and is told: “The less you know, the longer you live.” By the end of the novel, Viktor, caught between rival gang factions, is forced to abandon his apartment, a child left in his care named Sonya, and sort-of-girlfriend Nina (employed to take care of Sonya). But more importantly, Viktor also abandons his penguin Misha just as he is about to undergo a heart transplant.
Penguin Lost picks up with Viktor in the Antarctica, on the run from gangsters who want him dead. Hoping that it’s safe enough to return, Viktor leaves the Vernadasky Base and travels to Russia after agreeing to deliver a letter and a credit card for a man who is hiding out in the Antarctica, the Moscow banker Bronikovsky, another “comrade [s] in adversity,” who claims he is being slowly poisoned. So within just a few pages, Viktor is back in Kiev:
Life hadn’t changed: foreign visitors delivering charitable aid to orphanages; two Ukrainian People’s Deputies imprisoned in Germany for fraudulent banking; businessman’s family shot dead in Kherson; opening of super garden centre at Obolon; and on the last page but one, a couple of wretchedly written obituaries, all the more distressing for having been signed with Viktor’s own pseudonym. The Editor-in-Chief, it appeared, was no longer his quondam patron Igor Lvovich but one P.D. Weizmann.
In Viktor’s old personal life, things have changed and not for the better. A man known as ‘Uncle’ Kolya has moved into his flat and now rules the roost, and during a telephone conversation with Sonya, Viktor ascertains that the situation is unstable:
Auntie Nina went away for two days once leaving just eggs and a roll. So I made myself an omelette.
Viktor, then, has three tasks to perform:
- Straighten out the situation in his flat
- Find Misha the penguin
- Deliver the letter and credit card to Bronikovsky’s wife or widow in Moscow.
Since Viktor feels that his “prime duty” is to Misha, he decides to track him down first. He goes to the vet clinic where Misha was scheduled to have the heart transplant and discovers that while the operation was successful, Misha was subsequently removed from the hospital by gangsters.
In a from-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire sort of way, Viktor becomes the protegé of yet another gangster, Andrey Pavlovich, a colourful, affable, larger-than-life individual (my favourite character in the book) running for political office who believes in something called Snail Law:
“We don’t need much,” Andrey Pavlovich continued, “a bite to eat, a spot of cash, a roof, and we’re snug as a snail. Which brings us to Snail’s Law: small snail, small shell, like you; big snail, big shell like me. Mine, if I outgrow it, I build afresh. No shell–you’re a slug, and slugs come to a sticky end. Like me to build you one?”
Offering protection, a “shell , which you nip back into at the first whiff of danger,” Andrey employs Viktor for his political campaign, and while Viktor is given the appearance of a choice in the matter, the truth is that he’s Andrey’s ‘guest’ for the duration of the campaign and is free to leave only after Andrey wins the election:
You with your imagination and your dodgy life, are just the man I now need to write me speeches and a manifesto. You’re closer to the voters, know what they want–not that there’s any need for that, though it looks good. Once I’m in, off you go: Moscow, New York, Santiago de Chile, wherever.
What if you don’t get in?
Wrong question! My opponent, known as Boxer is damn nearly bald and looks the bruiser he is. Not an attractive proposition.
Once again Viktor falls on his feet relying on his writing talent to get him by. Some of the people Viktor encounters claim to have information about Misha’s whereabouts, but before he is given that vital information, Viktor must first perform various tasks in return. Part of the novel’s humour is rooted in the rampant political corruption and campaign antics which are taken very matter-of-factly by those involved. Since Viktor lives by his wits, is surrounded by corruption (and brutal corruption at that), and has a series of misadventures, it’s very easy to see the picaresque influence here–although it was not glaringly apparent in Death and the Penguin–as Viktor moves through Russian society, trying to meet his responsibilities and yet facing various Herculean hurdles (including an amorous widow) on the way. Absurdist elements mesh well with the picaresque, and so it seems perfectly natural and reasonable that Viktor seeks his penguin post heart-transplant.