Category Archives: Kurkov Andrey

Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.


The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

Review copy



Filed under Kurkov Andrey, Non Fiction, Smith Ali

Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov

“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:

    1. Straighten out the situation in his flat
    2. Find Misha the penguin
    3. 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.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher, Melville House Publishing, via netgalley. Read on my Kindle. Translated by George Bird.


Filed under Fiction, Kurkov Andrey

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

“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

My copy read on kindle courtesy of the publisher, Melville House Publishing via netgalley.


Filed under Fiction, Kurkov Andrey