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Freewheeling Andy

Andrey Kurkov - The Penguin Novels

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I was in Waterstones chatting with the staff, asking what they'd recommend as an extra book in the 3 for 2. They recommended Kurkov after discovering I was enjoying Murukami and David Mitchell and seeing the books I'd already picked up. It's as good a way as any to discover new books.


The two Penguin Novels are now collected in one volume, and they seem to sit together nicely.


They are the story of Viktor, a failing author who can never get anywhere close to writing his novel, and his pet penguin Misha, who he picked up as Kiev zoo was downsizing.


Viktor gets employed as an obituarist for a Ukrainian paper, but he writes obituaries of the still living. It's only after they begin to get published that he realises what a mess he's in, involved with the Ukrainian mafia and organised crime.


It would probably begin to ruin the plots if I write any more here, so instead I'll give a feeling of the books.


They're written in a slightly comic style, possibly close to Bulgakov in the absurdity of what's going on; but perhaps in terms of the characters, and their strange shallowness yet interest, it could be closer to Murukami.


The plot devices are odd, sometimes things aren't at all clearly explained, and the coincidences begin to become frustrating.


The first book is probably better than the second, yet they belong together nicely, and some of the frustration of the ending of Death and the Penguin is removed by reading Penguin Lost.


I'd certainly recommend them. They're fun, and easy to read. Effortless. But they're probably not as good as the bloke in Waterstones suggested.

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I read the first of these, Death and the Penguin, and didn't really enjoy it all that much. I found the oddness (or forcedness) of the coincidences you mention, and the frankly not-very-amusing whimsical humour weren't really compensated for by the rest of it. It's most likely a cultural thing, but I wasn't tempted to read the sequel, or the rest of Kurkov's stuff. Kudos to Harvill Secker/Vintage though for continuing to make him available in English.

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Personally I'd say Kurkov was closer to someone like Voinovich, Pelevin or even Zoshchenko than Bulgakov, but there you go. It helps to know a little about post communist Russia/Ukraine to really get the flavour of what he's up too. Anyway, he has a new novel out at the moment 'The President's Last Love'.

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