THERE ARE THREE COMPARISONS that reviewers unfamiliar with Russian literature will make when describing works translated from Russian: If the main character seems like someone you'd move away from if he tried to sit next to you on a bus, then the work under review is "Dostoevskian"; if the book has a lot of characters or takes place over many years, then it has "Tolstoy-like sweep"; and if bizarre things happen, then the work is inevitably "Gogolian."
Not surprisingly, Andrey Kurkov's penguin novels — which feature an underemployed writer named Viktor Zolotaryov and the penguin he adopts when the local zoo gives away animals it can no longer feed — get tagged as "Gogolian," and not for what would actually be a justified comparison; the only real similarity is that both Gogol and Kurkov write about Ukraine in Russian, a nuance that is lost on most people who know neither language, but one that could serve as a casus belli in the region.
As I read Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost, however, two other comparisons suggested themselves far more insistently — and only partly because of the penguin. (Full disclosure: I have a PhD in Soviet literature, also known as the "Advanced Degree Least Likely to Prove Useful Anytime Soon.") One was Fazil Iskander's Goatibex Constellation (1975), and the other was Yuz Aleshkovsky's Kangaroo (1981). Like Kurkov's books, these two novellas center on animals that either seem impossible in their Soviet setting, like the Moscow-zoo-bound kangaroo that Aleshkovsky's hero is falsely accused of having raped, or are impossible in any setting, like the "goat-ibex" hybrid that Soviet geneticists claim to have bred in the mountains of Iskander's native Abkhazia. In both books, the impossible animals — like Kurkov's penguin — are woven into the stories as if they made perfect sense, and thus capture precisely the backside-of-the-moon feeling that so much of Soviet life engendered in the writers and intelligentsia who lived athwart that society.
Kurkov, to be sure, is a post-Soviet writer, which has led some reviewers to read his books as allegories of the difficult birth of capitalism in Ukraine. That case can certainly be made: Zolotaryov, the hero of both novels, is what Russians would call a "semi-intellectual," the kind of guy who floated through the Soviet period perfectly well by working as a nightwatchman in a car park and writing incomprehensible poetry. Now that the "working class" is no longer glorified, Zolotaryov has to make a living by writing obituaries for people who have not yet died. Zolotaryov is surrounded by people much richer than him, people with wrestler's necks and big fancy cars who come and go from his life in incomprehensible ways — now leaving him a little girl to take care of "for a while," now advising him that he should disappear "for a while." Kurkov never establishes the time period of his penguin books, but it feels like the late 1990s, when all the old rules had been erased, and no new ones had yet emerged, when some people drank French cognac and paid thousands of dollars in cash for airplane tickets to Italy, and others had to make ends meet by teaching kindergarten in the day and turning tricks in their classrooms at night.
There is an important difference, however, which in the end makes the Iskander/Aleshkovsky comparisons not quite...