Icy innocence: Review

This tale of aspiring writer Viktor, the emperor penguin he has rescued from Kiev zoo and the murderous intrigue in which they find themselves embroiled, is related with the guilelessness of a story for very young children. The black humour and understated, deadpan style place the novel firmly in the absurdist, satirical tradition of other Russian-language writers, and on one level this is a withering caricature of post-Soviet Ukraine where shadowy mafia types have taken on the mantle of the Party.

But Viktor’s state of alienation, reflected in the hapless penguin, is also like an antidote to the strident ‘Hollywoodisation’ of narrative in which we are all seen as masters of our own destiny on our own ‘hero’s journey’ (yes we can!). Instead, Victor acquiesces to what life throws at him, too exhausted to do otherwise, and aware that his world is organised by sinister forces over which he has little control. Set against an unforgiving urban landscape, his story is a darkly comic and tenderly told everyman’s tale of a modest life and modest dreams outstripped by the social upheaval of the modern world: ‘life itself had changed . . . as if the mechanism was broken, and now there was no knowing what to expect of a familiar object – be it a loaf of Ukrainian bread or a street pay telephone. The seeming reality of everything was only a relic of childhood.’ From ‘Death and the Penguin’ by Andrew Kurkov

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