Penguin Lost, by Andrey Kurkov, trans. George Bird

Surreal adventures in the post-Soviet bloc
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The Independent Culture

In this sequel to his celebrated Death and the Penguin, the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov returns to the fate of Viktor, a decent man with neither job nor friends, and Misha, the penguin he adopts when the post-Soviet zoo can no longer afford to feed him. We last saw Viktor in danger of his life, usurping Misha's seat on a plane to Antarctica. The present story opens with Viktor befriending a dying banker, another refugee to the snowy wastes.

Equipped with money ,Viktor returns to Kiev, with a lucrative commission, to right the wrong done to the penguin. Nina, no great personal loss, has moved in with another man, while adopted six-year-old Sonya is still a lippy little charmer trying to keep order among selfish adults. Viktor has nowhere to live but happens on a mafia boss, Andrey Pavlovich, who needs a campaign director for his political debut. Heavies clear the occupied flat while Viktor arranges charity photo opportunities for the politician in exchange for a trip to Chechnya, and Misha.

A nightmare journey ends in his willing enslavement to the Chechen "businessman" Khachayev. A tapped oil pipeline provides fuel for reducing dead bodies to ashes and jewellery - an ongoing minor holocaust in the Caucasian mountains. Kurkov writes the kind of believable action story that has led to comparisons with Le Carré. The narrative is interwoven with a moral fable for gross post-Soviet times.

Viktor, like the mafia men, makes money out of death. He needs contact to Khachayev to beg for his penguin back. The Ukrainian politician pays the ransom and the black-eyed, angst-ridden beast is restored to a snowy balcony in Kiev. But he needs to be repatriated, as Viktor would like to be, if only he could find a kinder homeland.

There are lovely comic dissonances in this novel between high technology and low humanity. A mafioso is laid to rest with a mobile phone in his coffin; a multiple murderer worries about his telephone bill. But the Chechen butcher also wants to keep his promises to a child, while the Ukrainian politician gets genuine pleasure from helping people.

This morally grotesque post-Soviet world is tinged with Dostoevskian absurdity. Without God everything is permitted, says Ivan Karamazov. Kurkov's writing remains light and understated, but in the end he feels bound to spell out the value of benevolence. Viktor bows out, neatly linking the needs of others, when he creates a Ukrainian arm-wrestling team for the politician to sponsor in Split, whence a boat is leaving for Antarctica.

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.

The reviewer's 'Motherland: a philosophical history of Russia' is published by Atlantic next month