Interacting with art is always subjective, and sometimes a particular reading experience will bring that home to me with a vengeance. I started Andrey Kurkov's Death and the Penguin during a time of personal uncertainty, when I was exhausted and unsure if my employers would be going out of business. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found the first half of Kurkov's novel unengaging. The narration style seemed flat, numb: I couldn't "hear" the voice of the author, and the plot (concerning a journalist-cum-obituary-writer who, along with his de facto ward and his pet penguin, becomes embroiled in a mafia war) struck me as half-baked. Then, when I was halfway through the book, the uncertainty in my own life came to an end. And even though the news was bad - today my job ends and my company, like so many others in this economy, shuts its doors - I was so relieved to be out of the state of limbo that my primary immediate emotion was one of release. Funnily enough, Death and the Penguin was transformed, for me, along with my mood: suddenly the novel became dryly hilarious, a clever satire on the scattered, surreal atmosphere of post-Soviet Ukraine. The narrative voice was suddenly accessible. The plot, although odd, became intriguing.
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Kurkov's novel is not actually terrible for its first hundred pages and delightful for its second. Much more likely, it has a consistent texture and flavor throughout; had I been reading it during a more restful time, I probably would have enjoyed it in its entirety. It's amazing to me, though, just how stark the difference in my perception was between the first and second halves of this novel. I have to wonder: how many other books that have struck me as limp or offensive over the years have been casualties of my own state of mind? And likewise, how many of my favorite pieces of art only achieved that status because I happened to pick them up at exactly the right moment in my life?
Once my situation allowed me to appreciate Death and the Penguin, I noticed a lot to love. One of the things that struck me was the way in which reality and surreality exist easily side-by-side. I've seen Kurkov's work compared to the Soviet-banned classic The Master and Margarita, but from its opening pages Bulgakov's novel is unapologetic, fantastic allegory. In Death and the Penguin, on the other hand, the surreal elements are all grounded in some version of reality. It may seem bizarre, for example, that Viktor has a penguin for a pet. But in the wake of the Soviet collapse, zoos and other state-supported institutions lost their funding:
Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving away hungry animals to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a king penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.
I don't know whether zoos actually did give away animals at the time, but this detail is richly evocative of the real yet surreal atmosphere of post-Soviet chaos. Formerly reliable institutions are either gutted or transformed; nothing is what it used to be; nothing is what it seems. Normally I prefer my surreality to be sinister and unexplained, but in the case of Death and the Penguin, the reality of post-Soviet Ukraine needs little embellishment: it's surreal enough on its own.
Something was wrong with this life, he thought, walking with downcast eyes. Or life itself had changed, and was as it used to be - simple, comprehensible - only on the outside. Inside, it was 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. Beneath every surface, inside every tree, every person, lurked an invisible alien something. The seeming reality of everything was only a relic of childhood.
I don't know whether the wordplay exists in the original Russian, but the phrase "familiar objects" is apt. The traditional nuclear family is one of the primary targets of the transforming chaos that pervades Kurkov's work. Viktor stumbles into a domestic situation superficially resembling the traditional one: a youngish couple living with their little daughter and family pet (albeit a penguin rather than a dog). But, as Viktor points out, nothing is as it seems. Sonya, his seeming daughter, is actually the child of a mafioso who drops her on Viktor's doorstep unceremoniously and then disappears for good. Nina, his ostensible wife or girlfriend, is a nanny Viktor has hired for Sonya. And, despite his growing practical involvement with woman and girl, and his contemplation of purchasing a summer home with Nina, his emotions never become invested in these relationships. In one scene, he surprises himself by thinking that "perhaps he should try to grow fond of Nina and Sonya." In Viktor's world, emotional attachment seems not to grow organically out of everyday life - or rather, attachments do form, but not with the people one would normally expect.
And yet, this comfortable if dispassionate life is enough to pacify Viktor, to convince him to accept the growing danger in which his shady employment - writing damning obituaries on notable people just before they die - is placing him. Whereas the traditional hero of a mystery novel feels compelled to get to the bottom of whatever's going on, Viktor is often overcome by lassitude in the face of unfathomable dangers:
Was it worth trying to discover what was going on? Worth risking comfort - curious though it might be - and peace of mind? He would still have to write obelisks, and still have to be needed in order to stay alive.
As un-glamorous as this attitude is, I have to admit I can really relate to it. In such a chaotic, nonsensical world, it seems outlandish to suppose that Viktor should risk his temporary shelter (under the wing of who-knows-what questionable characters) and bring on his own death sooner than anticipated, just to ascertain the exact workings of the crimes in which he has unwittingly become involved. A kind of provisional, superficial comfort is the best these characters can reasonably expect. Despite everything, though, Viktor still struggles with his basic human instincts of curiosity and self-preservation. He can't dismiss them entirely, and in that small way, I found the novel to be a hopeful one, in addition to its dark hilarity and dystopian charm.
(Death and the Penguin was my fourth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.)