‘Death and the Penguin’; Andrei Kurkov and writing in Ukraine

by Maria on October 25, 2006

(Cross-posted to the Ukraine Study Tour Blog)
During the Ukraine study tour, the British Council arranged a session with Andrei Kurkov, Ukraine’s most famous living novelist. With his impeccable, colloquial English and knowing way of dealing with Westerners, Kurkov maintains a slight diffidence while deftly playing the media game. Kurkov’s early training in Japanese and his slipping the net of Russian intelligence service recruiters to wait out the fall of communism as a prison guard in Odessa hint that this is a writer who will not be pinned down.

He thinks the Orange Revolution changed the mentality of Ukrainians, making them less passive and politically indifferent, but adds; ‘I have no illusions, it was essentially a bourgeois revolution’. He talked to us affably and optimistically about Russian and Ukrainian writing in Ukraine, cultural policy and the national arts scene. He also spoke about censorship, saying “there are no clean politicians in this country, unless they are very young or very unimportant.”

Kurkov occasionally writes for European newspapers but is best known for ‘Death and the Penguin’, a black comedy set in modern day Kyiv. It’s quite fitting to write in a blog about ‘Death and the Penguin’. Its protagonist, Viktor, is a writer who starts and finishes the novel “trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose”.

Viktor craves recognition as a proper novelist, but doesn’t have the talent or drive to manage anything longer than a short story. Employed by a newspaper editor and a major underground figure to write obituaries of the living, Viktor soon comes to dread the publication of his ‘obelisks’, the cryptic eulogies of Ukraine’s notables that obliquely point to who’s next on the assassin’s list. His companion is a dolorous penguin, Micha, rescued when the zoo ran out of money. Micha pads sadly around Viktor’s apartment eating frozen fish and peering at himself in the mirror, missing his old companions. His only pleasure is a rare swim in a cold bath. While studiously ignoring his pivotal role in a series of political murders, Viktor unwittingly collects an assortment of people that approximates a nuclear family, complete with pet. Everyone ends up at least as lonely as they were at the beginning, if not more so, or dead.

Which sounds depressing. It really isn’t. Death and the Penguin is certainly melancholy. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s about melancholy and an unspoken yearning for the camaraderie of the old days. Because when all the youth leagues, may days, and workers of the year evaporated in 1991, it turned out that communism had actually done quite well at eradicating bourgeois sentimentality. Without the forced companionship of enthusiastic believers, there weren’t enough social ties to get moody ex-communists out of the house on a winter’s evening. And winter is long. Even for a penguin.

So ‘Death and the Penguin’ is about loneliness, which is as universal a theme as you can imagine. Micha’s depression expresses the loss of purpose and friendship that must have made Ukraine a rather subdued place in the 1990s. Micha’s ‘family’ live amiable but parallel lives, occasionally reaching out for companionship but never feeling their way to intimacy.

For all that, it’s funny. Because ‘Death and the Penguin’ seems so redolent of Bulgakov and his talking communist dogs, I kept expecting Micha to speak. He never does. The book never over reaches into slapstick. Its black humour is mostly implicit in a clever plot that you can just as easily read as back story. Events may occasionally prompt Viktor to act, but the plot has less effect on his feelings than the weather. It’s up to the reader to figure out what’s really going on, or just stick with Viktor to see if he will ever make a connection to another human being. ‘Death and the Penguin’ is a wonderful book, widely available in translation.

Kurkov is often criticised for writing in Russian rather than Ukrainian, but friction between writers’ political and literary ambitions is nothing new. In the late nineteenth century, as cultural nationalism bloomed all over Europe, writers in Ukraine struggled to create a literature in Ukrainian. As many of Europe’s nations came to discover – or more accurately to create – themselves; alphabets, grammars and ultimately literatures were built onto illiterate peasant tongues.

Ukraine’s writers tended to be from the urban and educated classes; so they spoke Russian first and best, and picked up Ukrainian from wet nurses and street markets. Choosing Ukrainian meant turning aside from the great Russian literary tradition. No small feat when you consider how many Russian writers came from modern day Ukraine: Gogol (whose ‘Dead Souls’ is set in eastern Ukraine), Akhmatova (born in Odessa), Vasily Grossman (writer of ‘Life and Fate’), Chekhov, and Bulgakov (born in Kyiv, slightly appalled by his rustic countrymen, as ‘The White Guard’ shows).

Kurkov belongs firmly in the Russian literary tradition, with a pedigree in absurdist social satire that runs via Bulgakov directly back to Gogol. Listening to Kurkov, it seemed to me that literary Ukraine shows the same combination of the shambolic, the corrupt, the tenacious and the enduring we saw in every other part of life there. He says the Ukrainian stall at the Frankfurt book show is a mix of generals’ memoirs and agricultural journals, the whole thing got up as a money laundering effort.

Kurkov’s use of the surreal is fitting in a country of bizarre contrasts, dramatic events, and unbelievable turns of fortune. Ukraine’s heroic venality demands Kurkov’s deadpan approach. A couple of years ago, Kurkov wrote a book about a handsome politician who is poisoned by the Russians and loses his looks but gains power. The thing is, the book pre-dated the events precipitating the Orange Revolution by about eight months. Ask Kurkov about the almost magical absurdity in his novels, and he smiles and says he only writes about what he knows.

Kurkov believes Ukrainian writing is more vibrant than the current Russian literature scene. Russian history certainly left a huge gap in Ukrainian literature. Imperial Russia disapproved of ethnic and linguistic difference and so did the Soviets (apart from a brief period in the 1920s). When literary censorship was lifted in 1991, the fifteen hundred members of the old Soviet Writers Union were set loose to write what they liked, as long as they could find someone willing to pay for it. The market for hack writing of communist propaganda dried up over night.

Today, young writers are rushing to begin Ukrainian literature all over again. Kurkov describes this generation of writers as being in a learning phase, intoxicated by its own freedom and the radical changes of society, uninterested in its soviet history, producing what he calls ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ writing. The independent publishing industry is still developing, and just as subject to patronage and corruption as anything else in Ukraine. But you can only feel envious of a generation of writers steeped in but unfettered by the Russian greats, openly ambitious and ready to take on the world.

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