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.
The recent reissuing of several of Stig Dagerman’s novels by University of Minnesota Press has rekindled interest in his works, which have until now been little-known outside Sweden. Just twenty-four when he wrote A Burnt Child (here newly translated by. . .
Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the. . .
In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or. . .
There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.1
They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.
The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo. . .
Poetry always has the feel of mysticism and mystery, or maybe this feeling is a stereotype left over from high school literature class. It is generally the result of confusion, lack of time committed to consuming the poetry, and the. . .
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is not only a translation, but a transformation. It is a translation of Jean Genet’s novel Notre Dame des Fleurs, transmuted from prose to poetry. Originally written in prison as a masturbatory aid (Sartre. . .
Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers. . .