Kurkov, penguins and other monuments of Ukrainian literature

Ten years after it came into print in English I finally overcame my reluctance to read Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin. So what was holding me back all this time? Honestly it was some of the reviews I read – the ones which talked about how the book provided a convincing portrait of post-Soviet life though I suspected the reviewer’s knowledge of post-Soviet life came from a combination of one or two novels they had read, CNN and their imaginations. That might be unfair, but even so – if the main feature of a novel is its picture of post-Soviet life in Kiev, is that really enough?

Then there was the Russian name dropping, especially Bulgakov’s, qualified or not by the fact that Kurkov’s novel did not include the satanic and supernatural, the historical sweep of The White Guard or the fantastic elements of Heart of a Dog. Maybe they meant something along the lines of: “Were Bulgakov to write a book with a penguin in it …”

There was also an uncomfortable attempt to categorize the novel. Was it an existential thriller, a parody of a thriller, a comic novel, a bleak tale of post-Soviet alienation? The brilliant novel leaves all the labels behind, but one of the things I found most striking was that among all the deaths the most lamented one was the death of Viktor’s literary hopes. He goes from dreaming of novels to abandoning even the idea of writing short stories. In the end all he can write are obituaries, yet the novel we are reading is the paradoxical result of his abandoning his muses, like a mirror image of his inability to put words together that do anything more than kill.

On September 27, Melville House Publishing is releasing the sequel to Death and the Penguin, with the story taking up right where the first book left off. Penguin Lost will be available for the first time in the US. A review of the book will be up here shortly.

A nation of suffering and complaining

In August, Kurkov published an essay on Ukrainian literature on the Vintage Books website in which he ranges over a number of topics, especially the Russian/Ukrainian language divide (He writes in Russian, while Ukrainian is the “official” language of the country despite over half the population having Russian as their first language). He also mentions a group of contemporary female authors specializing in “drugs, sex and rock-n-roll” that the financial crisis has apparently driven into obscurity (Hint to these authors: switch the order of your first two specialties).

The essay is very informative and full of priceless formulations, such as: “Ukraine has made some significant contributions to world literature. Apart from Gogol, there’s Leopold Sacher Von Masoch – from where we get the word ‘masochism,’ which is, I think, a very Ukrainian phenomenon. People here love to suffer and complain.”

The monument of Babel

From Elif Batuman’s blog I learned that one of Ukraine’s greatest writers is being given some belated recognition in the city of his birth. A monument to Isaac Babel has been erected in Odessa across the street from where he used to live. Sculptor Georgy Frangulyan created a bronze Babel sitting on some steps with a tilted wheel nearby. It sounds like the process of raising funds and bringing the work to fruition was difficult, to say the least.

One day perhaps Kiev will have a monument to Andrey Kurkov in which the writer will be overshadowed by the bronze king penguin by his side.

Photo – French Revolutionary penguins by the Cracking Art Group

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Categories: Books


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  1. ‘The Case of the General’s Thumb’ by Andrey Kurkov | literalab - 05/12/2012

    […] first two Andrey Kurkov novels published in the US – Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost – depict a post-Soviet universe where the difference between a life of plenty […]

  2. Kurkov on the fate of Ukraine | literalab - 24/01/2014

    […] my reviews of The Case of the General’s Thumb, Penguin Lost and a short but rambling account of what took me so long to read Death and the […]

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