Viktor Zolotaryov, the hero of Death and the Penguin, here returns for a second adventure, this time seeking out his friend and closest companion, the penguin Misha. At the start of the novel Viktor is in Antarctica, having taken Misha’s seat on a plane to escape with his life at the end of Death and the Penguin. Misha has, in the meantime, disappeared, and most of the action in Penguin Lost consists of Viktor’s increasingly dangerous attempts to track down his friend, whom he thinks has been moved from Kiev to Moscow.
And so begins a tour through the underworld, which in this case is the world of the moneyed elite, or which has instead has become the only world, of post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine.
Viktor’s first stop on the tour is with the would-be politician Andrey Pavlovich, who is standing for election to the People’s Assembly in a few short weeks. Viktor becomes something of a PR man for Pavlovich, crafting a political platform, organizing photo ops, etc. In exchange, Pavlovich helps Viktor in his quest, providing information, funding, and contacts, as necessary. But Pavlovich is more mafia don than politician, insofar as those things are different, and the Sword of Damocles hangs over Viktor’s head, as it does over Pavlovich himself and everyone who seeks, or seeks to be near, money and power.
Viktor’s next stop takes him to Moscow, where he seems to discover the heart of darkness, and draws one step nearer to Misha, only to find that the dark opulence of Moscow only masks the further deprivations of imperial Russia that lie in the Chechnyan warzone.
The Viktor of Penguin Lost is a more energetic and invigorated figure than the one we met in Death and the Penguin, one who, at first, seems to have taken his fate in to his hands in a way that the earlier Viktor seemed incapable of doing. But for all his activity, it becomes apparent that all this energy and vigor is only allowed to find expression by the good graces of the moneyed and powerful, that only stubbornness and luck allow him to accomplish anything at all—his seeming willfulness masks a helplessness, a complete domination of the public and political sphere by the demands of criminal-capitalism, that seems an even more damning criticism of the post-Soviet East than the one represented by the beaten-down Viktor of Death and the Penguin.
Which isn’t to say that the prose or the story is a dark or laborious one. The tone throughout, even when the story is at its darkest, is light, ironic, and breezy. Viktor is one of those unreflective creatures who moves without too much thought from one moment to the next, seeking only to do those things that are necessary for him to retrieve Misha. And that makes for a quick and easy read, although if you pause for a moment to think about what kind of world makes these necessary decisions of Viktor’s both necessary and possible, a cold shiver runs down your spine.
Less surreal than Death and the Penguin and filled with more action, Penguin Lost is a worthy continuation of Viktor and Misha’s adventures.