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 right. Both Iskander's sly demolitions of the "science" behind politicized genetics, and Aleshkovky's berserk, take-no-prisoners assault on Soviet history depended upon the way in which Marxist ideology was held up to the populace as logical, dispassionate, and implacable. The Soviet system's official sanctity made it all too easy for writers and readers alike to see, and lampoon, the distance between the government's claims and reality.
The capitalist culture of the penguin books, by contrast, has no ideology, no sanctifying philosophy. Rather, the new world that has overtaken Kurkov's Kiev is governed by what one character, a rising politician, calls "The Law of the Snail" ( Penguin Lost's original Russian title): "small snail, small shell; big snail, big shell — no shell — you're a slug, and will come to a sticky end." Everyone, in other words, needs a shelter, someone or something larger to serve, in exchange for which they receive "a roof" (the more common term for such protection in Russian crime fiction). Thus, Kurkov's penguin, Misha, while an exquisite "character" who shuffles from room to room, watches TV mournfully, or disports in brief glee during picnics on the frozen Dnieper river (Picnic on Ice was the first novel's Russian title), is in the end no more than another floater like Zolotaryov himself — stranded in Kiev by a fate he can't discern, waiting patiently for an end he can't imagine. Misha even gets a human heart transplant, an oblique reference to yet another famous Soviet-era book, Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog(1925). In this classic novella, an organ transplant turns Sharik, a stray dog, into a member of the new Bolshevik ruling class. But Kurkov's penguin remains just a penguin, albeit one with chest scars.
Kurkov's books are published in English by a crime series and do involve death, guns, money, and sex, but no one should expect Lord Peter Wimsey here. Zolotaryov is a cork bobbing along in the currents of history, sufficiently decent as a human being to take in a soon-to-be hungry penguin or to respect the last wishes of a pensioner-"penguinologist" also left stranded by the collapse of the Soviet system. But he is largely untroubled when his penguin becomes the star mourner at Kiev's most fashionable mafia funerals and so disappears for a time, "taken over" by someone higher up the social food chain. So too with the little girl, who becomes an almost-daughter, and so too with the woman he hires to take care of the little girl, takes as a lover, and then leaves again. Zolotaryov tries to take care of them when they're in his sight, but isn't much troubled when they aren't.
Death and the Penguin comes closer to the crime fiction genre in that Zolotaryov eventually figures out why he is being asked to write these fulsome obituaries, and then has to figure out a way to avoid becoming the subject of one himself. Penguin Lost is more a picaresque: Zolotaryov returns from his place of refuge and, for a time, appears to be gaining his footing in the new political landscape, working as an "image consultant" for a budding politician. This affords Kurkov some wonderfully comic scenes suggestive of what political campaigns and elections look like to a writer who has not lived in the Western media circus of elections all his life. In the perfectly unmotivated transitions that characterize the picaresque genre, Zolotaryov sinks as quickly as he has risen, ending up for a time as a slave laborer in an illicit crematorium in Chechnya, and then bobs up again, now coach of the Ukrainian arm-wrestling team as it competes for national glory at a global meet in Croatia.
This aimlessness may trouble readers not familiar with the character of the Russian intelligentsia, even if Zolotaryov — who proves an adept snail — manages in the end to become the master of his own shell (at least to the degree that any of us can). People in Zolotaryov's world rarely plan, never save, and are not much surprised by whatever fortune brings, whether it's suddenly winning big at a roulette table or finding that the casino's bank had lied to you about the value of the chips and then cheated you even of the amount with which you agreed to let them cheat you. People like Zolotaryov move forward with hope that things will turn out okay, but with no expectation that they will, and thus, no particular despair when they don't.
When asked in an interview which writer had most influenced him, Kurkov named Andrei Platonov — a Soviet writer not much heralded in his life, but now regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest prose stylists — saying that his first books had been "pure Platonov." How much this applies to these two penguin books is difficult to say, for most of the magic of Platonov resides in his Russian, described by his translator and critic Robert Chandler as "extraordinary and shocking but also — in some indefinable way — right and natural." Platonov himself is monstrously difficult to render in English, but what remains when all else is lost is something very like Kurkov's picaresque — a bemused and earnest fellow of good heart, wandering without particular purpose or plan through a world that cares little about him. Even the name of Kurkov's hero has something of Platonov about it: azolotar' derives from the word for gold, but in the most ironic way possible — the zolotari were men who gathered the contents of a community's chamberpots and carted them to the fields to spread as fertilizer.
So in the end, for what might one read Kurkov? These books are not detective fiction, nor are they reliable guides to the politics and mores of post-Soviet society, any more than one of Lee Child's best-selling Jack Reacher novels could serve to "explain" America to a Russian or a Ukrainian. What they might approximate for the curious reader, however, is what it's like to sit for a long late evening with a genial and gifted storyteller as he leads you through the most ancient and, in many ways, still most pleasurable functions of literature — making us wonder what on earth is going to happen next.
Especially to the penguin.