There are at least a couple of ways to read novels that come in a series – as stand-alone books with similar characters and themes, or as a single novel broken up for practical reasons. In the case of Andrey Kurkov’s tale of the misadventures of failed writer Viktor Zolotaryov and his pet penguin Misha neither of these definitions quite works.
Published for the first time in the US, Penguin Lost, the sequel to the critically acclaimed Death and the Penguin, appears at first as if it is going to fall victim to this ambiguity. The novel’s beginning is not very promising. In fact, it is less like a beginning than a chapter-to-chapter continuation from the first book and plainly cannot be read on its own. Especially early on, Kurkov feels unsure of the whole sequel concept and throws out the occasional clumsy reminder of an incident or character from the earlier action.
But just as it is often said that the 20th century did not start in 1900 but at the outset of World War I in 1914, the true beginning of Penguin Lost takes place in Chapter 36, when Viktor follows Misha’s trail into the confused nightmare of the Chechen war. It is not only that the novel gets more interesting at that point, but that its engine has been kick started and it takes on a vibrant life of its own.
Unlike the first book, the title of Penguin Lost does not include the word “death,” though there may be an even higher body count here. After all, mafia killings and political assassinations usually take place individually, with the occasional extra casualty thrown in, such as Lyosha, organizer of Misha’s funeral appearances, who reappears here having lost his legs to a coffin bomb.
When Viktor makes his way to Chechnya in search of Misha death is literally in the air in the form of a makeshift private crematorium that burns bodies indiscriminately enough that they can come from either side of the conflict (In fact, they do not even necessarily have to be dead). The Chechen gangster who runs the crematorium as part of his business empire is keeping Misha in a kennel with a pack of ferocious Alsatians.
In the background throughout, as it was in Death and the Penguin, is Viktor’s potential and hopes as a writer. Though he faces numerous threats to his life he is never so daunted as the couple times he takes out his typewriter and faces the whiteness of a blank piece of paper. He is well aware that he is being given everything necessary to finally make his literary dreans come true yet keeps coming up short, having passed from the “time of books” to the “time of newspapers” to silence.
“There was material there for something – a drunken theory, or short story,” Viktor thinks at one point. Yet theory it remains, and the most realistic aspect to the book’s off-the-wall and cheerful conclusion is when he throws his typewriter out of the window. “I’ve disposed of my past,” Viktor whispered, “so as not to repeat it.” And with that Viktor’s literary ambitions, along with his manipulative use of words, come to and end.
While the first book could conceivably be put on stage – its sets a dingy Kiev apartment or snowy dacha, its cast a couple adults, a young girl and a penguin – Penguin Lost is pure cinema, the landscapes of Moscow and Chechnya providing much of the atmosphere that was generated in the first book by the mere fact of placing Viktor, his penguin and mafia orphan Sonya in the same space.
Kurkov has shifted away from the more day-to-day strangeness of the first book to a picaresque romp that gets to the darkest center of post-Soviet life, all the while allowing the reader and his main character to maintain a certain amused detachment to the surrounding mayhem. Viktor’s quest to bring Misha back so he can return him to Antarctica has as much passive indifference to his own life and fate as it does love for the bird with its transplanted child’s heart.
Once the novel’s engine begins to roar though, realistic considerations do not seem to matter much. We, like Viktor, are being led drugged and blindfolded by fate and surprisingly good-hearted gangsters on the kind of circuitous journey home that has been a staple of literature since Homer and which now adds a penguin to the long list of unlikely epic heroes.