“Penguin Lost” the much anticipated sequel to the marvelous “Death and The Penguin”, more than just lives up to the expectations built around its release. Andrey Kurkov with his Dostoyevskyian absurdity and a defiant style of story telling picks off without a pause from where he left his readers gasping.
Viktor is guilt ridden after abandoning his unusual pet – an emperor penguin named Misha, – and sailing off to Antartica to save his own life. This exquisite irony of a penguin staying in a city and a human opting to while away life in the Arctic sets the tone for events to follow. Under circumstances that can only be described as unusual (and that is putting it mildly), Viktor is forced to return to Kiev and his reunion with his city sets him off on a determined search to trace the whereabouts of his dear penguin.
This search, that consumes Viktors waking and sleeping hours, takes him on a path which would have even made Robert Frost reconsider the title of his immortal poem “The Road Not Taken!”. Viktor, with the help of an ambitious politician, makes his way to war torn Chechnya, where Misha is being kept in confinement by a Chechen war-lord. Viktor’s efforts to save Misha leads him to strike dangerous dalliances, swallow unsavoury secrets and even operate an electric crematorium where the unrelenting line of bodies to be burnt epitomizes the dangerous state of a Chechenyan existence. Meanwhile Nina has lost both her youth as well as her obsession towards Viktor and has taken to the now crippled Lyosha. Sonya, in the meantime struggles with her divided loyalties towards her “Uncle-Daddy” Viktor and the lost Misha.
The narrative is equally sparse as was with “Death and The Penguin”. But as sequels are invariably wont to be, the seraphic quality of the original is lacking and some of the passages drag on lapsing into a state of avoidable incoherence. But what is pleasant is the unique absurdity which forms the cornerstone of Kurkov’s writing. This satirical verve which now we all recognize to be the Andrey imprimatur, dazzles and forces fond reminiscences that involve Bulgakov, and Dostoveysky. The dark and bleak humour hides more than it reveals; the trauma being faced by millions following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the seceding of Ukraine from Russia being one of such revelations.
The natural predilection of the characters in the book towards vodka and cognac irrespective of the hour of the day, demonstrates in a tragicomic vein, the pernicious state of alcoholism to which adults in the former Soviet states have become incorrigibly addicted to. The invidious beast of corruption leading to a political rut is also captured using a mixture of wit and irony. Comical killings, funny disappearances, ridiculous alibis, and novel methods of torture illuminate the queer workings of the political machinery in Kiev. Viktor’s alternative states of catastrophic and comfortable means of existence in life illustrates with great candor the existential divide between the haves and the have-nots in a country where liquor and prostitutes are much more easier to procure than happiness and contentment.
While we cannot use the same brush to broadly paint an entire genre or body of work, the fact is that when compared to “Death and The Penguin”, “Penguin Lost”, comes across as a slightly less illuminating work. Then again as Mark Twain so wonderfully put it “Comparison is the death of joy”.
So being prudent and thereby preventing the unfortunate demise of joy, let us just savour “Penguin Lost” for what it is – the saga of a lost Penguin and its equally ‘lost’ Master!