This book is a page-turner. The simplicity and overt plainness of the prose combine with the perverse congeniality of the foreground subject matter to make one carry on, ignoring worldly concerns. And while the plot is complex it is also strangely unimportant, compared, that is, to the foreground.
Viktor, a 39-year-old journalist, lives in a tenement block in Kiev, captial of the relatively new nation of Ukraine (not The Ukraine). Like many of us in the Deregulated World, he doesn’t have a permanent job and relies instead on contacts to bag the odd journalistic assignment. There is a lot of time off. We join him as he tries to make use of his empty time by writing fiction, something he’s always dreamed of doing on a permanent basis. He wants to escape the teasing ghostliness of the short story and write what the real world thinks is the real thing: a novel. Instead, he sits at his kitchen table and writes another short story, later hawking it around a few newspapers.
This might be the beginning of many other worthy, socially accurate novels portraying post-Soviet economic "reform". But Viktor has a saving grace for the reader: his pet Misha, the penguin of the title. Misha came from an impoverished local zoo when they offered its animals as pets to anyone who could provide food for them. Viktor took the penguin because, abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely: "But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness", we’re told, "and the result was two complementary lonelinesses".
Misha’s presence in the novel is glorious. Whatever Viktor does, Misha is somewhere in the background asking for attention by not asking. We always want to know what he’s doing, how he is, what he’s feeling. Whenever we read of Viktor’s exploits, and they are copious, we think of Misha standing somewhere in the background, his emotions, if he has any, concealed by his expressionless exterior. The only hint of an answer comes when Viktor runs him a cold bath and he flops into it happily, or when he is taken to a frozen lake during the winter months and he disappears into a fishing hole for ages, bewildering alcoholic fisherman when he pops out again.
In my fictional experience, only Karenin in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Balak in SY Agnon’s Only Yesterday do pet animals (in this case both dogs) appear so accurately and memorably. However, Misha is a suffering penguin: he has depression. An elderly penguinologists, as he calls himself, tells Viktor that Misha is superheated under his two layers of fat, and nobody would be happy feeling like that, would they? Viktor feels sorry for his pet but doesn’t seem to make much effort to cheer him up except to ply him with lots of seafood.
Misha remains in the background as most of the novel is taken up with Viktor’s life. He gets a job writing obituaries for the main Kiev newspaper. He makes a name for himself with the philosophical flourishes and elegiac, allusive nature of his obelisks, as he calls them. His editor pays him well in US dollars. The plot revolves around the behind-the-scenes ramifications of these obituaries. This is also why we turn the pages, though more in agitation than pleasure. We want to find out what is going on and how it all works out.
In the meantime, and the meantime seems to last most of the entire 227 pages, we live in Viktor’s world, full of events suggesting something dark going on elsewhere, waiting to spring into his life with violence, yet also quite flat. A man, touchingly known to us as Misha-non-penguin, leaves his young daughter Sonya with Viktor and then disappears. A man turns up and says he’s taking Sonya away with him, but he soon disappears too, and then Viktor is hired by a mobster to attend funerals with Misha at $1000 a time. But nothing is revealed; Viktor worries, relaxes, worries again. Time passes, that’s all. A friendly militiaman offers Nina, his niece, as Sonya’s nanny, and she promptly becomes Viktor’s lover without, it seems, any passion passing between them (that "complementary loneliness" again). Life carries on as dully as usual and Viktor continues with his obelisks at his kitchen table.
So what makes this such an amusing, affecting, readable novel? Well, if Misha the penguin is so attractive to us in his silence, mystery and apparent sadness, then the "death" of the title is his abstract equal – standing behind the action, waiting, inscrutable, not asking for anything, yet preying on one’s mind (in fact, I’m told that the Russian original means "Death of a Stranger"). The pleasure it affords us as we read is the same pleasure Viktor gets from his writing. It is an oddly comforting voyeurism on life in general, a life which is elsewhere, the subject of endless conjecture (the "plot" we are all in search of). We watch it all from the perspective of a place where nothing happens – Viktor’s mind, the obituaries he writes, this novel in particular and literature in general. We watch it all with death and the penguin blinking impassively in the corner, and we are oddly moved. We don’t want it to end, no matter how plainly written or routinely translated it is. It complements our loneliness.