Posted by: biblioglobal | January 22, 2015

Ukraine: Death and the Penguin (Book-from-every-country #65)

Death and the Penguin

Translated from the Russian by George Bird

The title is what drew me to Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I’d have to give it a tie for best title with A Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (Italy). This is also the second book I’ve read with death in the title, the other being Death with Interruptions (Portugal).

The title is also a very good summary of what the book is about. It’s about death and it’s about a penguin. Specifically a penguin named Misha who was given away when the Kiev zoo could no longer afford to keep its penguins and his caretaker Viktor who writes unusual obituaries. (For some reason the book calls them “obelisks” which I’ve never heard before as a term for an obituary. But it makes a certain amount of sense.)

The cover describes the book as a black comedy and I’d say that is pretty apt. I laughed quite a bit during the first part of the book, but less later on, though I think it was supposed to continue to be funny even as the darker aspects ramped up. BiblioBoyfriend read it after I did, and I notice that he did sometimes laugh aloud, even in later parts of the book.

I should also point out that BiblioBoyfriend has taken a dislike to penguins ever since watching March of the Penguins, but even he came away from the book with a strong affection for Misha. It’s strange actually, how endearing Misha manages to be, since he really never actually does much of anything. Like his caretaker Viktor, he mostly just goes along with the program, however strange that program might be.

Ukraine comes off as cold and gray, particularly since much of the book takes place during the winter. Plus there’s the economic struggles of the Post-Soviet era and both Viktor and Misha-the-penguin are pretty much depressed. So it might have been fortuitous that I read Death and the Penguin while visiting somewhere warm and sunny and not while I was at home in the cold and gray myself! Even the vacation homes, dachas, seemed quite depressing.

I hadn’t heard of dachas before, but apparently they are a big part of Russian culture and by extension, many of the former Soviet states as well. As best as I can tell they are a hybrid of summer homes, gated suburban communities, and garden allotments. The houses are built close together in a community each with a little bit of land and often without much in the way of amenities. It seems they were popular as a way for people to be able to grow their own food during the Soviet era and even today a substantial proportion of Russian families (I don’t know about Ukrainian) grow food on their dachas.

If you’re looking for more good literature about obituary writers, check out Sherman Alexie’s short story “Salt” in War Dances, an excellent collection of short stories and poems. For good literature about penguins, there’s always the children’s classic Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Oh, and apparently there’s even a sequel to Death and the Penguin, entitled Penguin Lost.



  1. I really enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. Then again, the life he describes did sound depressingly familiar to me (although we had no dachas).

    • It really is an enjoyable book, despite its depressing atmosphere. Thinking about it, there’s also an interesting contrast in the book between the depressing atmosphere of Viktor’s Kiev and the daily trips of Nina and Sonya who seem to be able to find new and fun things to do in the city every day.

  2. I enjoyed it too. (And Despite its depressing atmosphere.) In case you wanna read my review, here it is…

    • Did you ever get around to reading the sequel?

      • No, but I think I will do so for the European Reading Challenge

  3. I loved this book. It’s many years since I read it but your post brought back some fond memories of Misha. The sequel’s good, but not quite up there with this first one.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed my post! I also enjoy reading other people’s post about books I have loved. (Especially if they liked the book also, but sometimes even if they don’t!) Good to hear your thoughts on the sequel. I hope to read it eventually.

  4. I was this close to ordering it as my Ukranian book, but then decided not to go with it. It’s really great to read all these positive comments and feedbacks about it. I guess I should read it too after all.

    • One book per country is often just not enough. But one has to pick and choose. And then maybe come back for a return visit later. I will look forward to hearing about what other Ukrainian book I missed out on.

  5. Ooh this sounds fun! What went wrong with March of the Penguins? I loved that movie. How can anyone not like penguins?

    • I think it might have been the behavior of the audience in the movie theater, expressing aloud how very cute they found the penguins, as much as the actual movie. I actually haven’t seen it myself, so I can’t comment.

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