Death and the Penguin (Ukraine)

by Andrey Kurkov

Courtesy of a special order through Auntie’s Bookstore

Map of UkraineFiction.

I have been engrossed in a series with a pet penguin before. In Japan. But never like this. Viktor’s pet Misha came to him when the zoo in Kiev, Ukraine, was unable to afford to feed all its animals following the post-Soviet collapse. They were giving them away to anyone who promised to feed and take care of them. So Viktor got a King Penguin. Misha is his only friend, the only one the socially awkward Viktor can relate to. Like Viktor, Misha often seems depressed.

Viktor longs to get short stories and novels published, but often lacks the motivation to write them. While working for a newspaper, he lands a job writing obelisks–obituaries. Now, in the West, it is common for major newspapers to keep a running file of a few dozen royalty and celebrity obituaries in advance, in case these people die, so they can scoop the competition. (I know this from having worked in newspapers. Queen Elizabeth is one. Angelina Jolie is another.) So Viktor is asked to start an obelisk file on some notables in his country, just in case.

book coverBut something sinister starts happening–the people he writes about start dying. Often just after he writes an obelisk. And he isn’t choosing who to write about anymore, he’s being told. When he asks the Chief of the newspaper he works for what is going on, the man tells him he doesn’t want to know. And that when he does know, his usefulness, his job, and even his existence will no longer be needed.

So Viktor goes along to stay alive, churning out hundreds of these things, rationalizing to himself the whole time. Meanwhile, Misha the penguin is dragging him into life and connection with the world. One evening Viktor is visited by a sinister man called Misha Non-Penguin who delivers obelisk requests to him. The stranger’s 4-year-old daughter falls in love with the penguin, and soon Misha Non-Penguin drops Sonja off to stay with Viktor while he lays low somewhere, waiting for the dust to settle.

Having nobody to penguin-sit Misha when Viktor has to go away on assignment, Viktor calls up the military post and gets a random soldier to watch him. Luckily, Sergey Fishbein is a nice guy and makes friends with Viktor. His niece Nina later comes to babysit Sonja and be her nanny.

Five Bowls of Frozen Salmon

King Penguin
King Penguin

Even though this is a dryly funny dark comic novel, the characters are very real and you can’t help but root for them. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did had it been bleak or depressing. It wasn’t.

I got the strong feeling that Viktor was a mish-mash of all the people in Ukraine who were living their daily lives, keeping their heads down, just trying to enjoy their lives and maintain a sense of inner peace while all around them corruption on a massive scale was taking place. Corruption in which they themselves were unknowing or knowing players.

Viktor talks quite often about how he feels helpless, he has no choice but to do as he’s told, how the 118+ deaths don’t affect him and his cobbled-together family, how things are not right in the city or in the country as a whole and the times are bad, but that people have gotten used to it and now it is the status quo.

One of the great things about this powerful little novel is that you get a strong social critique exclusively through the frame of the plot. No preachiness here.

KievDespite Viktor’s complicity in the murders of the notables–and none of them are blameless–you like him. Despite his poor treatment of Nina, who eventually becomes a girlfriend he neither desires nor loves; despite his lack of love for Sonja, you like him. You like him because he does love his penguin. You like him because he is unexpectedly kind to the old man who used to look after the penguins at the zoo. This old man is just as isolated as Viktor, and when he phones Viktor with stomach pains, Viktor goes around to his flat, rings for an ambulance, and pays the attendants $50 to take the man to a hospital.

Ukraine countrysideConditions in the hospital are shocking and the old man is given no medicine even when they discover his stomach cancer. Viktor is outraged. There is no medicine. All the hospital can offer is bed rest.

The end of the book was neat and tied up the expectations I had in the beginning into a delicious present. Apparently there is a sequel called Penguin Lost, which I would be delighted to get my hands on.

Rating: Five bowls of frozen plaice and a bite of banana!


In one scene, Nina scolds Viktor for giving money to a charity collecting for scientists in Antarctica, telling him it’s a scam. “Remember when they were collecting for a children’s hospital because of Chernobyl?”

In another, some pilots tell him they are flying on “May 9, Victory Day as was.”

A little recent history for you!


A Glimpse of Eternal Snows (Nepal)

by (Dr.) Jane Wilson-Howarth

Courtesy of a special order via

Coming to you as the former property of the Cumbria Council Library in England

Non-fiction. An easy read that took me right back to my days in northern India, although it is about an English family’s adventures in southern Nepal. I loved this book and wanted to stay in its world forever.

MD Jane Wilson-Howarth and her water engineer husband Simon are living in Nepal as he works for Asia Bank. His job is to help improve irrigation in Nepal, and he’s based alternatively in Kathmandu and in very rural Rajapur, an island on the Indian border. Their small son Alexander is soon fluent in Nepali and Tharu. Trouble begins when Jane gives birth to a second son, David, who is born with all sorts of problems. David has two holes in his heart, only one kidney, an oversized head, and is missing the ganglia that normally connect the two halves of your brain. (Jane wonders if the pesticides and chemicals she was exposed to in Pakistan could have caused this.)

Rajapur Island mapAs a doctor, Jane knows that giving birth in the U.K., with  its high-tech machines, high standards of cleanliness, and plentiful pain-relieving medications and antibiotics has probably saved her life, and the life of her son. (In Nepali hospitals, doctors and nurses will not deal with bodily fluids–it is beneath their high-caste status. And drugs are hard to come by.)

But soon Western medicine reaches the limits of what it can do for David. Doctors want to keep taking his blood and testing, testing, testing. Eventually Jane says “Is this going to improve David’s quality of life, or make him feel better? Can you stop him from vomiting all the time?” When they can’t tell her yes, she disconnects the tubes from her unhappy baby and flies back to Nepal.

Dr JaneAlthough Jane sees that Nepaliis don’t always treat the disabled well, she prefers their blunt straightforwardness to the awkward avoidance of Westerners, who stare at David but don’t interact with him. In Nepal, most people coo and ah over his baby cuteness and his curly blonde hair first, then ask why he isn’t standing up on his own legs yet or talking.

The family does a lot of trekking and taking David about in a basket, and he seems to enjoy the different sights and particularly the sounds. At one festival dedicated to the goddess Laxmi, where all sorts of fireworks are set off, Jane says that David is the only child who enjoys the noise.

There is a caste systRajapur island photoem in Nepal and it’s quite unfair (perhaps not as much if you believe in reincarnation). If you’re born an untouchable, you can only escape by converting to being a Christian or a Muslim, and even then, people will know. In the book we meet Simon’s coworkers, all of whom are upper castes and most of whom are very dismissive of the “ignorant” village people and especially the indigenous Tharus. Jane employs one Tharu lady to keep house for her and then ends up hiring her husband as a gardener and her daughters too. Because of this, the family is eventually able to buy themselves out of bondage to their Brahmin landlord and build their very own house on a narrow strip of land.

Tharu peopleThroughout the book though, Jane is frustrated at not being able to make a medical difference to the people. Many Nepaliis of all castes come to her door looking for medical advice. Like people everywhere, many of them want a pill to solve their problems. Many of them are intestinal. Upon being told to stop smoking, stop chewing betel nuts or drinking alcohol, and avoid the spicy chilies Nepallis love, almost everyone ignores her advice and begs for an endoscopy, some pills, or an X-Ray.

Know-It-Alls are Annoying

Tharu map of originsI fell in love with charming baby David and bristled right along with his mother when she meets an obnoxious Indian medical professional who announces at once, “There is something wrong with your baby!” (As if she hadn’t noticed.) “He has some sort of…syndrome. He is severely mentally retarded!” It reminded me of the obnoxious Indian lawyer that we met while staying at a government bungalow between Delhi and Jaipur. He made pronouncements as if from on high, with no apparent realization that they were quite rude. For example, he told me: “There are 2 religions in America. Protestant and Catholic. Which are you?” Neither, is the answer!

carrying firewoodIn the book, “Dabid,” as the porters call him, cycles often from being well and thriving, to being sickly and not doing so well. Alexander achieves developmental milestones almost painfully in contrast and starts school. He is a sweet little boy who loves his little brother and his Nepalli friends and longs to grow up to be a driver, like the man called Moti who drives the family around. Endearingly, he calls David “Dawid.” Soon the family is joined by another baby boy, Sebastien. In an especially humorous bit, Jane is relieved to see David stealing Sebastien’s blanket on purpose, because he is not too damaged to feel–and act on–sibling rivalry. She says David thinks Sebastien is evil!

How Do We Know We’re In Nepal?

Himalayas in NepalAnother way in which Nepal is different from the West is that when one of the babies cries, all the Nepalii women urge Jane to “feed the baby” immediately. Everybody breast-feeds in public and it’s just fine. Nepal is a poor country, but it is rich in love, at least for children and babies. Women are often treated poorly, however, and Jane eventually takes on a servant girl named Ganga, whose own mother tried to sell her into prostitution in India. Ganga, however, ran away and was lucky enough to find Westerners (with money and a different outlook) who were willing to employ her. Eventually, despite Jane’s protests, Ganga becomes the second wife of a rich old Brahmin and bears him a child. To Jane, this existence seems appalling, all the more so because the first wife and the mother-in-law treat Ganga like dirt because she’s lower-class. But compared to the life she would have had as a prostitute? Yeah.

tigerThere are hints of unrest in the book–Maoist gangs–but little crime. And the wildlife is fantastic. At one point the family is trekking through the jungle on elephants and Simon and Alexander see not one, not two, but THREE tigers! I was so jealous. Julia and I and Gary, my British friends who worked with me in Japan, well, we heard a tiger coughing in the bush near Saristi, on a safari via Land Rover, but we never saw one.

Dr. Jane’s undergraduate degree is in zoology, so she is very interested in animals and in plants too. I loved reading her descriptions of them. Even the bits where she describes the scenery (which I usually skip) and the mountains, I devoured.

I wanted to stay in the world of the book, and this family, forever.

Rating: FIVE (hundred) stars in the clear mountain air of the Himals. (Yes, himals.)


The Storyteller (Peru)

by Mario Vargas Llosa
“Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature”
Courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

PREFACE: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”. For a body of work, not for this particular novel. I feel the medal icon atop this book is misleading, most likely on purpose.

OK, let’s tell the story! The protagonist of this novel is a Perunvian Jewish man of Central European ancestry named Saul Zaratas, who was born with a huge strawberry-colored birthmark on his face and calls everyone “pal”. Because of the birthmark, they call him “Mascarita” or The Mask. The narrator is his college roommate, who is trying to find him after a few decades of having lost touch. The novel opens in an art gallery in Florence, where the narrator has gone to try and forget about Peru for awhile. But there, in this gallery, is a series of photographs, one of whom features a group of Native Peruvians known as the Machiguenga tribe, gathered around a storyteller.

An agouti paca, or "royal rat", a main source of protein for the Machiguenga.
An agouti paca, or “royal rat”, a main source of protein for the Machiguenga.

Having never read any Vargos Llosa, I decided to try this particular novel because I too am a storyteller.

The importance of stories to the Machiguenga is undeniable. Stories from the basis of their religion, their oral history, their medicine, and their culture. Stories keep alive the atrocities of the “tree-bleeding” time in their recent history, known to the colonizers of Peru as “rubber-tapping” in which they played off the tribes against one another. Slaves were told that if they captured 3 enemies and delivered them to the Viracochas (whites) of the plantation, they themselves could take their families and go back to the jungle. UGH

I found some of the transitions jarring–it wasn’t always clear at first who was speaking–and the Spanish and Machiguenga terms, plus unfamiliar plants and animals that are thrown into the text without so much as an italic needed footnotes–thank goodness for Google. It also would have been nice to have known, as Vargos Llosa obviously does, that the Machiguenga don’t use personal names. For a bit I was quite confused as to why every Machiguenga was called Tasurinchi. Were they all the same person? No. Also, the narrator says that his friend “defended his thesis for his bachelor’s degree in his fifth year” at San Marcos–that isn’t the way it works in the English speaking world, pal, so we need a bit of explanation we don’t get. (Most likely these areas of the book are not Vargos Llosa’s fault but rather bad choices on the parts of the translator and publisher.)

The writing was pretty stellar. I got a little tired of the long-winded stories of the Machiguenga mythology, wanting in my Western reader way to focus more on reality, science, rational thought, and actual history. Still, the search for Mascarita was interesting, his evolution inevitable. Although as a reader, I would have liked a more conclusive ending. Because as is, it kind of reads like, “there was this Gringo/outsider/deformed person who abandoned his white lifestyle to go live with primitive peoples in the interior. The end.”

I love learning names. Names are so important. I am still learning the names of many of the native peoples of what is now the USA. But these names I had never heard before. Although Wikipedia lists around 60 tribes in Peru, some of names that crop up in the book, either as neighbors or traditional enemies of the Machiguenga are:

  • Shipibos
  • Huambisas
  • Aguarunas
  • Yaguasas
  • Shapras
  • Campas
  • Mashcos
  • Boras
  • Piros

Exotic, Not Erotic


The names of the South American Indians and places resonated like flute music in my ear as I read. Quillabamba, a city. Kashuri, the moon. Kientibakori, the major evil spirit. But Vargos Llosa doesn’t make the mistake of romanticizing The Men Who Walk, or to my great relief, fetishizing the native women (I find this tendency in male writers to be super icky). Mascarita mentions the problematic customs. He admires the tribes greatly, but he sees traditions in their society that he doesn’t like. And he makes no bones about it. He says he is not an Indigenist, like those of the 1930s, although he thinks the tribes should not be Westernized any further, that they should be left alone, pal.

Early on we are introduced to the Machiguenga idea that The Men Who Walk (and indeed, all humans) should control their emotions and not give way to negative outbursts. “A man throwing a fit can make a river overflow, and a murder makes lightning burn down the village,” Saul explains to his white friend. I immediately connected the dots to the Tibetan Buddhist idea of Tulpas, or beings created from emotional energy. And also to the ancient Greek idea found in Oedipus Rex, that if humans misbehave, that chaos bounces back to us in the form of natural disasters.

I was also intrigued by the idea that you can outstay your welcome in one place in the natural world, and need to walk on so that the sun does not fall from the sky. It makes sense in terms of resource use, and reminds me of the Yellow Leaf People in Thailand, a hill tribe that practices slash-and-burn agriculture like the Machiguenga. When the leaves they used to build their huts turn yellow, they know it is time to walk on.

Magical Realism–I Don’t Like It

Masato, an alcoholic native Peruvian drink fermented by chewing and spitting out cassava.
Masato, an alcoholic native Peruvian drink fermented by chewing and spitting out cassava.

I liked parts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude in college, but I felt frustrated at the lack of linear storytelling and a rational worldview. I didn’t understand half of what he was alluding to. I’m too much a product of Western rational thought to be happy with this form of a novel; too educated in the North American school system to “get” a lot of the history and culture that might be obvious to South Americans; and I notice most of the others in my book group at Auntie’s seem to be the same. If I spoke Spanish and lived in South America I would probably love magical realism. But, I don’t. Ironically because I read a lot of science fiction/fantasy novels, I am MORE tolerant than most Americans of this form. I haven’t even tried to tackle Jorge Luis Borges.

If I were editing this novel, I’d have chopped it in half, tightened up and condensed the rambling Machiguenga teaching tales and creation myths, and forced the narrative into a plot structure where things happen. I might have also suggested in the end that there are consequences, whether emotional or physical to Mascarita for throwing his lot in with the tribes of the interior, or that there is a showdown or confrontation between the narrator and his old friend. Or that there are stakes in the events for any of the people, anywhere, at any time.

Rating: Three stars beneath Kashiri, the moon.