Issue 45 — Picnic on the Ice
Death and the Penguin, by Sergey Kurkov
For this week I had been planning to tell you about a book entitled On Time and Water, by the Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason. But given current events, I am bringing to you instead a book by another Andrey, namely the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov. As we all try to learn more about Ukraine and its history, it is good to see that the publishing industry is mobilizing to see that Ukrainian voices are translated into English and other languages. Kurkov is a writer whose work you can obtain right now. His latest book Grey Bees will be published by Dallas-based indie Deep Vellum on March 29th, and you can pre-order it here.
Death and the Penguin
Andrey Kurkov, translated from the Russian by George Bird
Melville House, 2011
“Pepin the cat and Semyon the hamster discuss their plight” is the caption for the photo that was tweeted out by Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov on the morning of March 11, 2022, from somewhere in Ukraine. The photo shows Pepin, a good-sized calico, touching noses with Semyon, a little white fellow whose tiny front paws are holding fast to the bars of his cage. Semyon, we learn, has recently been sick.
Kurkov’s previous tweet reads: “More people are interrogated in Melitopol.”
Kurkov has experience in diarizing the surreality of life during a time of violent conflict. He is the author of Ukraine Diaries (2014), in which he provides a first-hand account of the period from the Maidan revolution to the Russian annexation of Crimea. His entries perfectly capture the collision of everyday life and violent political struggle. There are many moments of astute analysis and chilling prescience. Wednesday, November 27 : “. . . I made pumpkin soup and meat for dinner. Putin is waiting for Ukraine to collapse.” The author of 19 novels, 9 children’s books, and numerous scripts for TV and film, Kurkov is the president of PEN Ukraine, and he is currently appearing almost daily on news broadcasts and at online relief fundraisers.
Part trenchant social commentary, part surrealist love letter to mid-90s Kyiv, Death and the Penguin (originally published in Russian in 1996) was Kurkov’s first major hit. The protagonist Viktor is a loner and a struggling writer. He adopts Misha, an emperor penguin, when the city zoo runs short on funds to care for its animals amid the disruption caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse. Viktor is short on funds too, and when an offer comes from a local newspaper commissioning him to pre-write obituaries for local notables, he accepts with alacrity. As Viktor produces a steady stream of these “obelisks,” various shady characters and misfits enter his life. One of them, whom the narrator calls Misha-non-penguin, drops off his young daughter Sonya and then skips town.
Misha the penguin, meanwhile, continues to suffer from a severe depression, which Viktor tries to soothe with play sessions in a cold bathtub—and in one of the book’s happy scenes, with a picnic on the ice of the frozen Dnieper River.
Misha swam to his heart’s content in the broad ice-hole. Viktor and Sergey drank cognac-laced coffee, lying on [a] quilted blanket. Sonya had the Pepsi Cola and sweets that had bought for her. And all three watched the ice-hole from which Misha would leap as if bitten, becoming airborne for a metre or so before landing, comically, on the ice, and hurrying back to the blanket.
This episode is but a brief idyll, however, and the atmosphere of growing danger that permeates Death and the Penguin befits the period about which it was written—when Ukraine, like many post-Soviet states, went through a scary free-for-all of privatization, corruption, and factional fights for political and economic power. As Viktor is drawn into these struggles, Misha becomes an in-demand mascot for one of the local mob gang. The elaborate plot’s absurdity also serves as a nod to the great Soviet-era novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (who was born in Kyiv) and his masterpiece The Master and Margarita, in which the Devil visits the godless Soviet Union accompanied by a talking cat named Behemoth. Yet the vibe of Death and the Penguin, in George Bird’s fluid translation, is less flamboyant than that of The Master and Margarita, and more emo.
Viktor is like a pinball being flipped through the strange channels of this new society, and dissociation becomes an essential coping strategy. He is a reluctant detective- novel hero. “Was it worth trying to discover what was going on? Worth risking comfort — curious though it might be — and peace of mind?” Though marketed in the crime category, Death and the Penguin is just as much a social satire: a darkly funny and haunting glimpse of the challenges Ukraine has faced in building a truly independent nation. Misha stands in for all the peoples of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s: he is a highly social animal adapted to collective living, now confused and lonely within an emerging hyper-competitive capitalist society. And as we see via today’s harrowing reports, the human-pet relationship exemplifies the joys and rhythms of everyday life: taking a piece of fish from the freezer and putting it your penguin’s bowl.
Writing in 2014 as the conflict in Donbas was getting under way in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Kurkov in Ukraine Diaries admonishes Europe to think about its own patterns of corruption, patterns rooted in Russia’s status as a key supplier of the fossil fuels that Europe burns to power its economy.
It’s easy enough to conjure up a variety of possible scenarios for the immediate future, although none of them are particularly optimistic. The main reason for this is that Europe, so vociferous in her support during the Maidan protests, has subsequently fallen silent and walked away, preferring to profit from trade with Russia. Money matters more than democracy. This cynical lesson that Europe has taught Ukraine will inevitably influence the future of my country.
On March 10, Kurkov posted a picture of Pepin gazing out the window. “Pepin the cat. New place, new life. It is always easier to see your past in the window than your future.”
Writing from a village in the Carpathian mountains in the March 13 edition of The Sunday Times of London, Kurkov confirms that he knows his safety is at risk.
If Russia succeeds, another executed generation of Ukrainian writers and politicians, philosophers and philologists may appear, all those for whom life without a free Ukraine does not make sense. I consider myself one of these people, as are many of my friends.
It is scary to write the following words, but I will write them anyway: Ukraine will either be free, independent and European, or it will not exist at all. Then they will write about it in European history books, shamefacedly hiding the fact that the destruction of Ukraine was possible only with the tacit consent of Europe and the entire civilised world.
Voices like Kurkov’s offer us the chance to understand more deeply the complex historical forces now in play, as well as the admirable spirit of the Ukrainian people—who are so bravely fighting against Putin’s villainy and violence, as we all prepare to meet a future that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. When will it be safe for the people of Kyiv to enjoy a picnic once again?
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Other Voices, Other Forms
The founder of Ukrainian poetics was Taras Shevchenko, born a serf in 1814. He was also a brilliant painter and illustrator who rose to fame as a young artist in St. Petersburg. He soon became a Ukranian nationalist, an anti-serfdom dissident, and a thorn in the side of the Tsar, who imprisoned him and banished him to Siberia.
Lighthouse Immersive is a Toronto-based group that produces experiential art installations in cities around North America. For one day only on Tuesday, March 15th, Lighthouse will be presenting “Immersive Shevchenko.” Tickets can be purchased to attend live in any of six locations. A virtual option is also available.
This installation was originally conceived as a celebration of thirty years of Ukrainian independence. You can read more here. All proceeds will be donated to the Red Cross and the National Bank of Ukraine Fund.
Poem of the Week
Natalka Bilotserkivets is a Ukrainian poet best known for her poem “May,” written on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Here is her poem “Rose,” translated by Dzvinia Orlowsky. It speaks to our time, as millions are being forced into exile—not only in Ukraine, but also in many other countries around the world.
ROSE It’s time to pack your bag and go. You don’t know what to take – something easy to carry; everything you’d possibly need, instantly found. Two or three brushes, soap and a towel. Clean underwear, just in case your lover meets you – or God. Either way, you should have clean underwear. In a secluded place, among weeds of a dense, heavenly forest, I’ll meet a rose. Like Blake’s symbol of delicate mysticism – the rose who loves the worm. Having allowed him into her alluring womb, she trembles, hidden, to avoid me, and all poetry – a shame, a bore, oh, poor flower, lovely, dear . . .
Thinking of all who suffer from war and the threat of violence.