This is the strange little story of Viktor, an aspiring novelist in post-Soviet Kiev. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his pet penguin, Misha. He can’t get his stories published, but one day lands a job writing obituaries. The fact that he’s writing obituaries for people who aren’t dead yet doesn’t bother him too much–it pays the bills, keeps his fridge stocked with frozen fish for Misha, and, besides, he’s good at his job. But as you might expect, writing obituaries for the not-yet-dead in a planned economy, well…this job comes with certain strings attached, although the strings aren’t immediately obvious to Viktor. Things start to get strange. He finds himself the caretaker of a little girl. Packages and notes appear on his dining room table, even though his doors and windows are locked. He and his penguin begin receiving invitations to attend funerals. His boss disappears and reappears, never saying more than a cryptic few lines in explanation.
So the more you read, the odder the story gets. It’s told in such a flat, Soviet tone that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s odder–the story or the way it’s being described. This works in the book’s favor and adds a sense of surrealism and dark comedy. After all, aren’t we all kind of like Misha the penguin, trying to figure out just what on earth we’re doing here? Aren’t we all just trying to figure out how to play the cards we’ve been dealt?
My one criticism is that I think this could have been quite a bit shorter; I think it would have packed more punch as a short story rather than a novel. About 3/4 of the way through, it started feeling a bit redundant, although, thankfully, that’s also when the action started picking up. The writing is stark, but it’s also precise, so the book doesn’t slog. I think what recommends this book the most though, is the combination of so many elements expertly balanced in one little story: it’s odd, dark, sweet, thoughtful, clear, cynical, hopeful…and, of course, it has a penguin in it.