Eight years ago, I came across a strange book that I fell in love with. It was by a Ukrainian author who was born in Leningrad (1961) and writes in Russian. Death and the Penguin (1996), his first novel translated into English, became an international bestseller. According to Wikipedia:
The novel follows the life of a young aspiring writer, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov, in a struggling post-Soviet society. Viktor, initially aiming to write novels, gets a job writing obituaries for a local newspaper. The source of the title is Viktor’s pet penguin Misha, a king penguin obtained after the local zoo in Kyiv gave away its animals to those who could afford to support them. Kurkov uses Misha as a sort of mirror of (and eventual source of salvation for) Viktor. Throughout the story, Misha is also lost, unhappy and generally out of his element, literally and figuratively. One of the striking themes of the novel is Viktor’s tendency to go from justifiably paranoid appraisals of his increasingly dangerous position to a serene, almost childish, peace of mind.
From then, I went on to two other novels and a nonfiction work:
- Penguin Lost (2005), a sequel to Death and the Penguin
- The Case of the General’s Thumb (2000)
- Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev (2014)
I am currently most of the way through my favorite of his works: Grey Bees (2018) about a gentle Russian beekeeper who lives in a mostly deserted village in the contested “Grey Zone” between Ukraine and the Russian-occupied Donetsk “People’s Republic,” formerly part of Ukraine. During the course of the story, Sergey Sergeyich travels between zones and tries to survive the fragmentation and confusion that occurs because of Putin’s desire to rebuild the Russian empire as it was. And this was before Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
It is not possible to read this book without falling in love with the author’s gentleness in spite of the world falling to pieces around his ears.