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Death and the Penguin

(Пикник на льду #1)

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  11,570 ratings  ·  1,232 reviews
Viktor is an aspiring writer with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life. But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly t ...more
Paperback, UK, 228 pages
Published February 1st 2002 by Vintage (first published June 1996)
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Average rating 3.82  · 
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Ahmad Sharabiani
Смерть постороннего = Smert' Postoronnego = Death and the Penguin (Penguin #1), Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin is a novel by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. Originally published in 1996.

It is a bleak, satirical work with surreal elements and dark humour.

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
K.J. Charles
I've got a bunch of Ukrainian reads lined up in solidarity, and I hope they're all this good. Cracking dark comedy/weirdness in which a jobbing writer and his pet penguin (don't ask) find themselves enmeshed in a plot that slowly but surely distorts our hero's moral centre. Wry, stoic, bleak, but very funny in the teeth of the darkness. ...more
Dec 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Hugh Jackman
Recommended to Mariel by: my usual method. Russian authors list. I'm unoriginal
Death and the Penguin is a sweet and strange little book. It won't admit it is sweet. Don't call me sweet! I'm so sad. Can't you see that I'm sad? It might say. I'm not sure how to review it without sounding like a weirdo. I liked it a lot and almost loved it. It was almost warm and it almost made me happy. I almost belonged there. It is bittersweet feeling like going to a funeral and looking around to see if anyone else showed up, like that would make a difference. If you were the sort to show ...more
Maja (The Nocturnal Library)
Jul 01, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people with a weird sense of humor
3.5 stars

There's a reason why satire isn't among the most popular literary genres. It has to be extremely well written and you need to be open to that type of humor for it to work. But if you do like that sort of thing, and if the author is someone you can trust to be funny without being (too) offensive, you’re probably in for a great reading experience.

When the Kiev zoo suffers yet another budget cut, they start looking for people willing to take zoo animals as pets. Viktor, being a solitary a
Dec 03, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: humorous-fiction
anhedonia - noun \ˌan-(ˌ)hē-ˈdō-nē-ə, -nyə\
:an inability to experience pleasure in normally pleasurable acts

There are characters who live and breathe and make even a crappy novel a wonderful experience.

And then there are some you just want to slap.

Meet Viktor.

He takes pleasure in, well...nothing. He has sex mainly because it's offered, not because he desires it, feels no emotion for the woman in his bed, and is completely unmoved by the charming little girl he gets stuck caring for. Misha, h
Sep 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I knew nothing about Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov before reading it.

Viktor Zolotaryov is a frustrated writer, whose short stories are too short and uneventful to be published. When a newspaper editor unexpectedly offers Viktor a job as an obituarist, with reasonable pay, and working from home, he agrees. His original style delights his editor. Initially he has to select powerful figures from the Ukrainian elite and prepare their obituaries ready for their death and, as the volume of ob
Feb 25, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars

A bizarre and troublesome novel.

The plot is pure fantasy, but it is this sense of the ridiculous that makes the details in the background of the novel all the more striking. Kurkov fills it with his lived experience of Kiev and it is such that, by the end of the book, Viktor and his penguin, Misha, feel more normal than the 'real' world. In this society a man needing hospital treatment must bribe the ambulance drivers to get there and is offered life prolonging medicine from the doctor
LA Cantrell
Jun 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
Ukrainian satire isn't something I'd typically read, but it's good to broaden one's horizons. I think that this book must resonate more with those who lived in the post-Soviet world, although the loneliness - relieved only by a buddy named Sergey and a large, depressed penguin named Misha - was really well written. The humor was witty and dark, the story quirky, and you had to enjoy architecture called "Stalin baroque."

Our hero is a depressive sort who cannot get published for his short stories
John Hatley
May 03, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great little book! It has everything: suspense, mystery, tenderness, humour. It’s the first in a series of books by Ukrainian authors I plan to read and has inspired me to continue — and also to read more by Andrey Kurkov.
Thanks to Christa Vogel for her translation!
Don't get me wrong - I love penguins. I think they're awesome, and secretly I think I'd like one as a pet one day. But when this book was recommended for my book club, I was a bit wary - really? A story about a guy and his penguin? Sigh. I don't read satires very well, normally, so I expected this to be one of those sorts of situations where I missed all the humor. However, I do do surrealism pretty well, and I also do Eastern European literature exceptionally well. Okay, so penguins, surrealism ...more
Alan Teder
Post-Soviet Dystopia
Review of the Melville International Crime paperback (June 2011) translated by George Bird from the original Russian language "Смерть постороннего" (Death of an Outsider) (1996)

Death and the Penguin is yet another case of a novel translated into English which sorely lacks the context of an Introduction or an Afterword. This is such a regular failing of most modern translations that I've pretty much given up hope on seeing proper work done. I am spoiled in this regard due to m
Rick Riordan
Nov 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Another slim book, more or less a crime novel, this is a translation of a Ukrainian book. The main character, who has adopted a penguin from the local zoo, gets a job writing obituaries, then learns that he is writing obituaries for people who are about to die! Great premise. A quick and refreshing read, and the penguin is a terrific character. I understand there is a sequel too, though given the ending of the book, I don't know how Kurkov will pull that off. The book gave a very depressing glim ...more
Aug 14, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: russian, 1990s
'Death and the Penguin' is one of those books which shouldn't work, but somehow it does. It's a novel which address serious themes of death, loneliness and the casually oppressive nature of post-Soviet society in Ukraine, and yet it does so with humour. And a penguin.

The story of Viktor, a struggling writer who gets a job writing obituaries for people while they are alive who then strangely start dying off, is enjoyable and written in such a way that it seems perfectly logical rather than as unb
The Ukraine Kurkov portrays is a traumatized country. However he does this in a subtle, understated way. Moreover, he expresses that trauma through his protagonist, Viktor Alekeyevich, suffering from psychological paralysis in his inability to make decisions, and a psychosis of abandonment in his ruptured social connections.

Viktor is a failed fiction writer. However, his greatest lack is motivation rather than talent. He is unable to produce the gore-laden and lurid stories an editor advises hi
Aug 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Several years ago, I heard rave reviews of a book called Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I tried to read it but was baffled and bored.

A few weeks ago, I was restlessly trying to decide on something not too demanding but interesting enough to engage me. Then, I decided that in fact I needed something of some substance. All of which led me back to Death and the Penguin.

Which this time, I absolutely loved.

Showing, I guess, that timing plays a large part in the reading experience. At least i
Mar 30, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dark-comedy
A disillusioned writer living with his pet penguin Misha, in post-communist anarchic Ukraine… a nicely written poignant and dark comedy with a real soul. 5 out of 12.
Andrew Howdle
May 10, 2022 rated it really liked it
A strange novel indeed -- realism with a touch of Calvino meta-fiction. Viktor Zolotaryov is forty years old. He earns a living by writing obituaries for those who are not dead: an obituary, however, signifies a death to come in the very near future. The creative epitaphs are cleverly named obelisks after Egyptian pillars celebrating death and conquest. Valentin lives with a melancholy penguin that has a weak heart, a symbol of displacement and existential anxiety. The book is described as a com ...more
Max Berendsen
Jun 15, 2022 rated it really liked it
Review to follow
Christina Stind
Feb 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2009, fiction
Did you ever think about writing a book with a penguin being one of the main characters?
- then don't bother. Andrey Kurkov has done it and done it very well.

Death and the Penguin is the story of Viktor and his pet penguin Misha. Viktor saved Misha when the zoo gave away hungry animals to anyone willing to give them food. And Viktor got Misha and his life changed.
Well, not right away, but when he got a new job writing obelisks - obituaries for people not yet dead - things seriously changed. Not o
Jun 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Post-Soviet Ukrainian existential and absurdist noir is new genre for me and one I think Andrey Kurkov owns, Kurkov crafts tales worthy of Kafka but with warm humanity and humor and plotting that are definitely his own. The hero is a writer with writer’s block and a pet penguin (gotten from a defunded zoo) and while this combination at first seems a little bit precious but their melancholy day to day is described with well-placed rhythms and details and is never too cute. The events get both sin ...more
Jim Coughenour
Jul 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
I picked up this book on a whim in City Lights back in 2001 and fell in love with it almost immediately. It's a minor classic, an absurdist tale of Victor, a Ukrainian writer of obituaries who gets saddled with Misha, a pet penguin. When he discovers that someone is writing his obituary, things start to get scary. This isn't laugh-out-loud funny, it's more white-knuckled humor — but the denouement is masterful. Worth hunting down. ...more
Betsy Robinson
Apr 02, 2022 rated it liked it
In the beginning I found myself reminded of the Jules Feiffer play Little Murders, although I can't remember seeing it, except for a scene in a living room of people being shot. About a quarter of the way through Death and the Penguin, a dark post-Soviet Union story of an obit writer in Kiev, Ukraine, who lives with a pet penguin and then a young girl in his charge, I felt so ignorant that I stopped reading and instead read a long Encyclopedia Britannica history of the country that left me feeli ...more
Lakis Fourouklas
Oct 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those special novels that one just feels happy to read. The truth is that I didn’t even know the name of its author, until I watched a show about him on Greek TV, and that was it; I’ve decided to dive into his world and, according to those who know best, there’s no better way to start than by reading Death and the Penguin.
This story could be described as a kind of satire. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny it is, even though it describes a world more or less bleak, where th
Sep 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: review-in-short
At one time, I wrote trailers for television. Like the main character of this novel, I could access reams of background details and reduce them to a few crisp lines. Also like the main character, I seldom saw the shows themselves or any of the results. One Christmas, I wrote only trailers for the science shows, ignoring all the Christmas shows. My manager became quite emotional.

So I can identify strongly with the main character's artistic love of writing obituaries. It's a love which is the sour
Friederike Knabe
Oct 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ce-europe
The less you know the longer you live", recommended the Chief to Victor when he inquired about the purpose of preparing certain obituaries, called "obelisks" in the jargon of Capital News, a major newspaper in Kiev (Ukraine). Victor is a struggling fiction writer, who should feel himself lucky to land a well paying day job. So his friends tell him,except that none among them, or the readership of the paper, know what he is being asked to write. All obelisks are of well known personalities, and, ...more
Feb 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction-ukraine
This being the 2nd penguin based book I've read in the last month maybe I'm in danger of becoming slightly penguin-centric in my reading tastes. Despite that potential problem, this is a damn good book about a man and his penguin.
Viktor is an aspiring writer who through a combination of apathy and lack of talent hasn't gotten very far. When he receives a mysterious phone call asking him to write obituaries for important people who've yet to die, he jumps at the chance.
Oh, he also keeps a pengu
Jul 28, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommended to Dan by: Nick Hornby, by way of his Believer column.
Shelves: 2008
This book has the distinction of being the first work translated from Russian I've ever read (suck it, Dostoyevsky!) Technically, it's from the Ukraine. It follows the story of a struggling writer who takes work writing obelisks, obituaries of those not yet dead in order to pay the bills. It's when these people, dignitaries, VIPs, and so on, start showing up dead that he starts asking questions.
The penguin in the title is an actual penguin, Misha, who is rescued from a failing zoo by the writer
Mar 08, 2009 rated it it was ok
The embarrassing part of electing to review all novels (and other books) read is that gaps in the timetable are very apparent. I actually finished this weeks ago but had no energy to write about it. And started some books since and abandoned them, which is rare and maybe signifies something deeper. And am now battling my way through a novel that's taking me a good few weeks.

So my friend handed me this and said "See what you think of this. I didn't like it very much." Which is a strange yardstick
Apr 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: mystery, contemporary
I don't think I'd have ended up reading Death and the Penguin without a little challenge I'm doing to read twenty books recommended by friends. (It took me a while to get my twenty, but maybe now I should post them or make a shelf for them or something.) It's interesting, though. I'm not generally very good at politics and satire, particularly when I'm not very aware of the historical context, but this is enjoyable anyway.

You see, the penguin is not metaphorical. Viktor literally has a pet pengu
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Andrei Kurkov is a Ukrainian novelist and an independent thinker who writes in Russian and Ukrainian languages.

Kurkov was born in small town of Budogoszcz, Russia on April 23, 1961. When Kurkov was young, his family moved to Kyiv, Ukraine. In 1983 Kurkov graduated Kyiv Pedagogical Academy of Foreign Languages and later also completed a Japanese translation training.

Kurkov's most famous novels ar

Other books in the series

Пикник на льду (2 books)
  • Penguin Lost

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