What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bleakly humorous look at the life of one man and his penguin...

Let's start with the fact that the main protagonist of Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost, would-be novelist Viktor, has a pet. Fair enough. But this being the world that author Andrei Kurkov has created for his characters -- based on life in the post-Soviet Union Ukrainian capital of Kiev -- Viktor's pet isn't the standard issue cat or dog. It's a penguin; to be precise, an Emperor penguin named Misha, whom he adopted when the Kiev zoo is forced to de-accession its animals because it can no longer afford to feed them.

When the first of these two novels opens, Viktor is a bit worried about feeding Misha, too. Newspapers keep rejecting his stories, and he's wondering how to keep buying the frozen fish that Misha favors. (Luckily, there's lots of cold water on hand for Misha's swimming expeditions in Viktor's bathtub.) Out of the blue, it seems, he is wooed and flattered by a senior newspaper editor into writing a series of obituaries of prominent figures in the new Ukraine that can be kept on hand until their subject dies. Suddenly, Viktor can afford to feed Misha the occasional piece of frozen salmon or even shrimp, and he's having fun exercising his creative energies on the obituaries, including all the details of their seedy schemes and criminal acts, despite the fact that he despairs of ever seeing his byline in print -- after all, most of the figures he is profiling are healthy and surrounded by bodyguards. Until the day when one of them dies -- and suddenly, his obits are the talk of the town. Then he and his penguin, inexplicably, are in hot demand to attend some of the funerals...

What makes this novel work -- and caused me to laugh out loud even as I was gasping with appalled fascination -- is the naive figure of Viktor himself, who seems largely unaware of the bigger forces swirling around him. It's not that he's incurious, simply that he realizes that the world he inhabits is a complex and dangerous place. That's underscored by the fate of his friend and penguin-sitter, Sergey, who is whisked off to join the Moscow police and then isn't heard from, or by the disappearance of Misha-non-penguin, a Mafia-type figure who has befriended Viktor and who leaves him with his four-year-old daughter Sonya before himself vanishing from view.

When Viktor realizes what is really going on -- and his own possible fate -- he seizes the chance to escape. His return, in the second book, is do justice to the one companion for whom he has genuine feelings: Misha the penguin. But Misha is missing, and Viktor undertakes an odyssey to locate him, from the circles of Kiev's corrupt politicians to the Moscow underworld and eventually to a darkly horrific Chechnya, where he is hapless witness to what happens to the war's victims. Reunited with Misha, Viktor plans at least to take control of his own destiny -- but life has one last little surprise for him...

These are wonderful novels, books that play with the idea of "reality" as something absurd and even surreal, and that show how readily an ordinary man and his penguin can carve out an ordinary life and routine against a backdrop of chaos and anarchy.  The relationship between Viktor and his penguin is a tour de force -- I'll never be able to read books about a man and his dog in quite the same way again. And yet Kurkov also does justice to the peripheral figures in the story, who are sketched out quite clearly for the reader to observe even though we always see them through Viktor's eyes: the jovial and yet sinister editor; the generous mafioso; the young woman, Nina, who arrives as Sonya's nanny and becomes Viktor's lover, and who promptly begins agitating for a dacha in the country.

While I loved both these tragicomic novels, the first (Death and the Penguin) is certainly the stronger of the two books (4.5 stars), with a narrative that is focused in both time and space. It is in that book that we meet Viktor and Misha; that the absurd plight in which both find themselves becomes clear to us. In contrast, Penguin Lost (4 stars) exists to wrap up the loose ends left dangling at the end of the first novel -- where is Misha? What happened to Viktor? What about Sonya and Nina? You'll want to read the second book to find out, but it's more rambling and easier to put down. Death and the Penguin is already available; the sequel will be released in September by Melville House. Full disclosure: I obtained advance electronic copies of both books from the publisher via NetGalley.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I'm quite keen on reading these novels now.