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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Penguin Lost

Andrey Kurkov

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To purchase Penguin Lost

Title: Penguin Lost
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 256 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Penguin Lost - US
Penguin Lost - UK
Penguin Lost - Canada
Penguin Lost - India
Les pingouins n'ont jamais froid - France
Pinguine frieren nicht - Deutschland
I pinguini non vanno in vacanza - Italia
Pingüino perdido - España
  • Russian title: Закон улитки
  • Translated by George Bird

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Our Assessment:

B+ : laconic, genial look at the absurdities of life in the post-Soviet areas -- and a man's dedication to his penguin

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 19/3/2004 Michel Faber
The Independent . 16/4/2004 Lesley Chamberlain
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 28/8/2003 Adam Olschewski
TLS . 30/4/2004 Brian Dillon
Die Zeit . 11/9/2003 Tobias Gohlis

  From the Reviews:
  • "The prose in Death and the Penguin was, for the most part, lean; Penguin Lost contains conspicuous flab. As before, George Bird translates, although this time there are appreciably more infelicities (.....) Evidences of a rush job abound, but perhaps the awkwardness is mainly down to Kurkov himself; it's remarkable how an increase in action can be accompanied by so many passive tenses. Those who hailed Death and the Penguin as a masterpiece may be disappointed, even angered, by the slapdash execution of the sequel." - Michel Faber, The Guardian

  • "There are lovely comic dissonances in this novel between high technology and low humanity. (...) This morally grotesque post-Soviet world is tinged with Dostoevskian absurdity. (...) Penguin Lost has plenty of charm but, with Misha mostly absent, it is higher on existential pain, and lower on picaresque pleasure, than its predecessor. It is also not helped by clumsy translation, fractured syntax and wrong punctuation in the opening pages." - Lesley Chamberlain, The Independent

  • "Penguin Lost is neatly satiric of the suspect conjunctions of a variety of post-Soviet inheritances. (...) Much of the novel drifts in an alcoholic haze, each new plot twist signalled by Viktorís waking to find someone breaking out the vodka as yet another shady deal unfolds. Viktor is a hapless dupe, lurching from despair to frail hope (.....) Penguin Lost is an intermittently entertaining comic quest, but might have done with a little more of Viktorís waddling familiar to leaven its tendency to sentiment." - Brian Dillon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "So märchenhaft das klingt und so leicht, elegant und heiter Kurkow die Abenteuer Viktors erzählt -- seine beiden Bücher sind sehr genaue und oft satirische Spiegel einer Welt, in der die Verbrecher und niemand sonst das Verhalten aller bestimmen. In diesem Sinne handelt es sich um Kriminalromane der radikalen Art: Unschuldig sind nur Kinder und Tiere, alle anderen sind Gesetzgeber, Henker und Mitläufer." - Tobias Gohlis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Penguin Lost finds Viktor -- from Death and the Penguin -- in the perfect place for Misha, his pet penguin: Antarctica. Having had to flee his homeland and with people still looking for him, Viktor wound up in the one very distant and hard to get to place he can feel pretty safe: the Ukrainian Antarctic Station; unfortunately, he was unable to bring Misha along .....
       Even there one is not entirely safe, as another man on the lam discovers -- but this wealthy embezzler's slow demise makes Viktor's return to Kiev possible, and once there he can devote himself to finding Misha and finally bringing him to the "cold far south". Viktor is primarily motivated by wanting to do right by Misha: "he must find Misha, seek his forgiveness, do his best to put things right." But he's a stand-up guy, with other obligations, too -- including seeing to it that Sonya, Misha-non-penguin's five-year-old daughter and Viktor's ward, is properly taken care of.
       Viktor has his goal clearly in mind, but he knows that much is outside his control, and that he has to allow himself to be buffeted by whatever fate has in store for him. And fate has a lot in store for him. Kiev isn't the safest place for him to be -- he's still a somewhat wanted man -- but he finds a guardian angel who can help him out a bit: Andrey Pavlovich is rich and powerful, and running for office (though he too sometimes has to bow to even more powerful folks' whims, and the office he aims for and then takes charge of changes accordingly). Viktor is a rarity: he's actually reasonably honest, and Andrey Pavlovich sees he can trust him. And Viktor also has a few talents that help with Andrey Pavlovich's election campaign.
       Meanwhile, Andrey Pavlovich is pretty capable too, and he can help Viktor out as well, putting him on the trail of his penguin (who is by now in Moscow). Viktor continues his single-minded pursuit, and along the way Kurkov shows what's become of Ukraine, Russia, and even Chechnya (yes, Viktor winds up there for a while too) in the wake of the Soviet collapse, with widespread corruption and life very cheap.
       From working at a backwoods (really backwoods) blackmarket crematorium to organizing a disabled veterans' arm-wrestling team, Viktor does what he can to get to his penguin, and then get his penguin into his natural habitat. It's not easy, but Viktor is able to keep his integrity while only getting battered, not broken (or baked alive ...); along the way he's able to improve the lots of a few people, and if the end result isn't exactly the happily-everafter-with-everyone-reunited conclusion one might have expected (or hoped for), it is a satisfying one.
       Told in a laconic, almost off-hand way, cleverly observed, with a few neat inventions, and surprisingly solid characterization despite so little space devoted to fleshing out characters, Penguin Lost is frequently surprising and affecting. Both comic and dark, its success stems from the fact that there's no cynicism at work here -- and little manipulation of feelings -- and it is a worthy complement to Death and the Penguin.
       More accurately, one should say Penguin Lost is fine in this form. But it's not all it could or should be. George Bird's translation is extremely lean -- and syntactically odd (e.g. "Vernadsky Base was soon got the hang of") -- and, for the most part that works (i.e. reads) quite well. More troubling however, is that George Bird's translation is also an extremely pared down one: the Ukrainian edition (which I have not seen) has 410 pages, the German translation (which I have) 536, while the US edition gets by with a very generously spaced 256. Comparing the German translation to Bird's English one it is clear that while few episodes or passages were completely cut (though a few were: the German edition has 110 numbered chapters, the English one 106) almost every sentence and paragraph was pared down to a minimum. Mind you, Bird's take works well enough -- even if it reads very tersely -- but it's only a shadow of the more expansive original; with more to chew on, the fatter German translation, for example, offers more rewards.
       (In criticizing the translation in his review in The Guardian, Michel Faber complains of the "conspicuous flab" in Penguin Lost, but he means the story proper, not the language -- which really is extremely lean in Bird's translation.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 October 2011

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Penguin Lost: Reviews: Other books by Andrey Kurkov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Andrey Kurkov (Andrej Kurkow, Andreï Kourkov, Андрей Юрьевич Курков) was born in Leningrad in 1961 and now lives in Kiev.

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