by Andrey Kurkov
"'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.. . . What you'd have to do is create, from scratch, an index of obelisk jobs -- as we call obituaries -- to include deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene -- that sort of person -- while they're still alive. But what I want is the dead written about as they've never been written about before. And your story tells me you're the man.'" (p 5)
It is always interesting to read a story about a writer. This writer is even more interesting both for what he writes - obituaries - and his penguin. When his girl friend abandoned him he adopted a King penguin who was likewise abandoned by the local zoo. Together they share an apartment and one another's unique sort of loneliness. This is the tempting, for some, beginning of what is a melancholy and comic thriller of a novel.
Writing obituaries turns out to be more interesting than one might suspect. His passion for writing and the assistance of a Mafia operative combine to lead him into a mysterious situation from which he may not be able to escape.
"The more he worked, the more his suspicions grew, until they became the absolute certainty that this whole obelisk business was part of a patently criminal operation. The realization of this in no way influenced his daily life and work. And although he could not help thinking about it, he found it easier to do so every day, having recognized the complete impossibility of ever changing his life." (p 156)
The penguin is an updated version of a Bulgakov-style social satire, where the improbable comes to look more and more sensible against the depiction of what is real. While pathos and humor shine through, this is at its core as black of a black comedy that I have read in some time. It has that rare distinction among my reading of being an evocative look at friendship with a penguin and an invention of genius.
It is energized by comic twists and turns that make Kurkov's writing unique in my experience. Subtly humorous and exciting, it contains unexpected moments galore. A vigorous bizarreness makes it a successfully brooding novel, which creates an enduring sense of dismay and strangeness.
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