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Death and the Penguin
by Andrey Kurkov

Field-Tested by Stuart Heath

in the Stockholm Archipelago, Sweden

I picked up Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin on a foray to a place called Nacka, which lay on the side of the city nearest the pine-lined cabin we’d rented at Stävsnas, itself a stopping-off point for journeyers heading out by boat to the further-flung isles in the Stockholm Archipelago. It wasn’t until we’d been home for a week, though, back to another Baltic island-chain a few hundred miles further south, that I began to read it. All the while, an unprecedented sauna of a summer had continued its steamroller’s progress, and we languished in it rather feebly under eaves of our poorly-ventilated attic apartment.

The novel relates the progress of Viktor, a would-be novelist, and Misha, the penguin he has taken in after the closure of the Kiev zoo obliged its keepers to give all of the animals away. When Viktor accepts a job writing stock obituaries for a local newspaper, he can’t help but notice, with mounting dread, that the dignitaries he eulogizes all too often die shortly afterwards, in circumstances never entirely free from suspicion. What could easily have made for a straightforwardly effective, if sour satire, is transformed as Kurkov blends in a full measure of the most charming domestic comedy, with Viktor’s desperate attempts to maintain the semblance of a normal, ordinary life with his unusual, melancholy pet, and with Sonya, the four-year-old daughter of an absent friend, whom he effectively adopts. What results is a truly delightful tale. I read a few paragraphs of it to my wife, who enjoyed them so much that I ended up reciting almost two-thirds of the book aloud to her.

Stuart Heath edited the now-defunct art blog, Giornale Nuovo in Sweden.

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