by Andrey Kurkov
Category: Fiction / Literary
256 pages; ISBN: 1843430959
Rating: 9/10 (Ratings explained)
Kurkov’s sequel to the highly acclaimed Death and the Penguin finds Viktor Zolotaryov in brief exile in Antarctica. Returning to his adopted daughter Sonya and distant partner Nina in Kiev, he finds work as ‘assistant’ to a gregarious Mafiosi. This shady benefactor dispatches him, via Moscow, to Chechnya in search of titular penguin, Misha, last seen convalescing from a heart transplant. What follows is a quirky tale of detective work, and an odyssey of atonement as Viktor seeks to resolve past mistakes in an ever-changing, but still familiar Russia.
This is not a detailed exposé of soviet political machinations, but does have timely echoes. Kurkov does not shy from controversy, illustrating how the shockwaves of the Russia-Chechnya contretemps extend far beyond their centre of impact and into the lives of ordinary men and women. The hollow process of Russian voting also comes under scrutiny, although despite the author’s best attempts, art will always fail to measure up to the absurdity of life in this department. Represented too are the tyrannical oligarchs, amalgamated into the character of Khachayev, capable of granting boons and breaking bones in equal measure.
Obituary writer Viktor is a curious hero, though not an unpleasant one. Incessantly acted upon, he is a forever passive object at the mercy of greater forces. From Viktor’s never ending pot of gold, to the frequent, though perfunctory sex he comes so easily by, he represents a defiantly anti-entrepreneurial stance, a courtesan in a tarnished, but still shining palace. There is nothing too unbelievable in the narrative; beyond perhaps, Viktor’s continued survival, although a departure into the fantastic still never seems more than a step away.
Kurkov alternates between hard boiled prose and pithy aphorisms, a combination which produces a rapid yet resonant read. There are also echoes of a noir sensibility (not only in Misha’s chiaroscuro feathers) which contrast with moments of bizarre humour to produce a unique and evasive tone. There are few arresting literary pyrotechnics, but instead the reader is carried ever forwards on waves of gentle charm, despite the often grim surroundings; it is the mark of the true craftsman that this artifice goes unnoticed so often.
As the pages dwindle, and the seemingly effortless invention continues, it becomes harder to believe that Kurkov can resolve his diverse plots satisfactorily. That he does so with both skill and wit, proves that there is more magic in his realism than in a library of witches and wizards.