Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (Melville House’s International Crime series)
Death; or, The Story: Viktor Zolotaryov is a failed writer approaching destitution when destiny drops in his lap a dream job: penning obituraries, or obelisks, of still-living artists, dignitaries, politicians–anyone and everyone of distinction in Kiev. As any discerning reader will immediately guess, this is a dodgy task with dire implications: the obelisks portend certain doom for their subjects. Viktor is slightly dumb and deeply passive; he spends most of the book in denial about the results of his work, and when he is forced to confront its grisly consequences, he is disinclined to act. A doormat, he is wont to agree with any demand asked of him. This leads to diverse plottish hijinks, some predictable and some absurd. It’s possible that this is a funny book? I could never decide. If it is funny, it is a dark humor, deadpan and understated despite the oddity of its premise. I can see the possibility of a successful film adaptation.
The Penguin; or, Characters: Kurkov has not produced a mystery in the traditional plot-driven sense; really, the book succeeds more as an existential character study. At the outset, Viktor’s life is devoid of human contact, and though he acquires enemies, acquaintances, and dependents, he remains fundamentally disconnected from them all. I am not denouncing him as a sociopath and don’t think that Kurkov is either–most likely this delineates a sort of post-Soviet ennui and social breakdown. For Viktor is not incapable of developing emotional bonds. It just so happens that his deepest relationship is not with another human but with Misha, the penguin he adopted from a zoo too destitute to feed its denizens. Misha is ineffable; unlike a dog or a cat, whose desires and personalities are easily enough discerned, he is a tuxedo’d depository for various human interpretation. For Viktor, Misha is the ideal life companion, more perfectly suited to his lifestyle than any human could ever be: Misha is dolorous but noble, loyal but discreet with his affection, dependent upon Viktor for food and care but always distinctly himself, as apt to shuffle away to stand in corners as he is to lay his head on his master’s lap. But this is only Viktor’s perception; for others, the interpretation of Misha is different. A dying penguinologist diagnoses Misha as depressive, doomed to pine fruitlessly for the arctic vistas of the south pole until an early death. A child, deserted by her father into Viktor’s care, views Misha as her only playmate and friend. And Viktor’s disreputable business acquaintances see Misha as a perfect emblem for their activities, a distortion of Viktor’s gentle pet that leads to disastrous events. I have no direct quotes to add to this write-up because, in a flash of inspiration, I lent it to one of my favourites of the bookish curmudgeons with whom I particularly bond, an older woman who is constantly deriding the unbearable seriousness of my reading choices. I’m looking forward to discovering whether Death and the Penguin is a good fit for her; I have a hunch it will be.
Dogma, Lars Iyer
Surely you’ve heard of Lars Iyer and his projected trilogy from Melville House, of which Dogma is the second (though it could easily be read out of order as the first; a chronological progression of events, these books are not)? No? Well then. Iyer chronicles the dubious friendship between an unlikely duo of dissolute philosophers: the narrator, Lars, whose few objectively determinable characteristics include his lineage (Dutch and Indian), his religion (Hinduism) and his dogged passivity; and W., his best friend and foremost detractor. Both Spurious and Dogma take the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue consisting largely of W.’s diatribe against his friend’s deficiencies–when he’s being kind, he refers to Lars as “Diogenes gone mad”; when he is not, everything about Lars is open to disection, from his physique to his intelligence to his lifestyle. These heaps of abuse are interspersed with philosophy and underpinned by a presentiment of apocalyptic doom. As with the first book, dire portents lurk at the edges: the creeping damp of Spurious has been joined by a plague of rats that colonize Lars’ domicile. Is this yet another dimension of the demerits cataloged by W., proof of Lars’ disgusting slovenliness, or is it a harbinger of the world’s end?
What’s the deal with this relationship, anyway? Is Lars as despicable as W. makes him out to be? If so, why does W. deign to be friends with him? (A question posed constantly by W. himself.) If not, why does Lars endure the abuse? And what about the distinct structure, the one-sided dialogue, with Lars doggedly reporting every last diatribe of W.’s, only occasionally recording his own responses, only sometimes giving context? I doubt that these questions matter in the least, though there was a glimmer of a key provided at the end of this book, but they are a consideration portion of the book’s draw.
Some reviewers have deprecated Dogma for being insufficiently different from Spurious; for the record, I disagree. The first book was largely concerned with the pair’s obsession with immortality and their power struggle over which of them is Kafka and which is Brod (an argument haunted by the dread that both may be Brods); Dogma sees them in action, striving to achieve the longed-for assurance of a legacy. At its start we find the duo on a lecture tour of America; its intent is to disseminate their enlightened philosophy to the wilds of America, but it quickly devolves into drinking, bickering, and drawing cartoons of America, represented by Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick cavorting in the Mississippi. The transatlantic adventure is discontinued soon enough, but back in England our heroes embark on another project: the invention of Dogma, half discourse style, half religion. Chapters are devoted to the defining of Dogma. Dogma is, among other things, spartan, full of pathos, sincere, collaborative, and world-historical. It is, to say the least, very few things that W. and Lars appear to be in their day-to-day dialogue with one another. They wrangle through the dictums of their intellectual movement, stating and rescinding them; W. despairs and emits diatribes against Lars; and all the while the damp and the rats continue their ominous take-over of Lars’ flat…
The end comes as a disappointment. I would happily have continued on in the company of W. and Lars, and I am most desirous to read the last book. Will my questions be given closure? I do not know, and I do not particularly care; these books are delightful in their solipsism regardless of how the trilogy closes.
The Dog of the South, Charles Portis
It is a great temptation to diagnose the various characters in The Dog of the South, my second read from Charles Portis. They are outlandish, Characters-with-a-capital-C, and though they are never dull their outlandish distinction was a deterrent against emotional attachment. It is difficult for me to discuss this book without the dominating context of True Grit, a novel that I love very much. I dislike comparative reviews, so I will say simply this before moving on: Ray Midge is no Mattie Ross; Dog did not depose True Grit from its place in my heart. Where Mattie and her disciples are wholly real to me, Ray and the people he meets are too pointedly odd to bridge the distance created by determined quirk. This is a minor quibble–I was happy with every minute I spent with Dog and will not disagree with anyone who calls Portis a writer of neglected American classics.
Like Mattie, Ray is on a quest; unlike that most dauntless girl, his has considerably lower stakes: he is driving through Mexico, following a trail of credit card receipts, in search of his car, which has been stolen by his runaway wife, Norma, and her aspiring-revolutionary of a first husband, Dupree. It is the vehicle that is Ray’s dominant concern; to the return of his wife he is strikingly diffident. Her desertion is warranted, one suspects, and in a striking moment of awareness, Ray expresses awareness of his shortcomings and sympathy to her dissatisfaction: “I should have paid more attention to Norma. I should have talked to her and listened to her but I didn’t do it. A timely word here and there might have worked wonders. I knew she was restless, and anxious to play a more active part in life. She spoke in just those terms, and there were other signals as well” (5). Despite some regret, it is the car Ray desires, for the replacement they have left him is a disheartening wreck in comparison to his beloved Ford Torino:
It was a compact car, a rusty little piece of basic transportation with a V-6 engine. The thing ran well enough and it seemed eager to please but I couldn’t believe the Buick engineers ever had their hearts in a people’s car. Dupree had shamefully neglected it. There was about a quarter-turn of slack in the steering wheel and I had to swing it wildly back and forth in a childlike burlesque of motoring. After a day or two I got the hang of it but the violent arm movements made me look like a lunatic. I had to stay alert every second, every instant, to make small corrections. That car had 74,000 miles on it and the speedometer was broken. There was a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That’s enough on the car for now.
No noble steed, that one! Despite its decrepitude, Ray develops a fondness for the machine; it is soon clear that he is more capable of forming attachment to objects than to people. He’s too self-centered for relationships; everyone, from his absconded wife to the friend he makes on the road–Reo Symes, a disbarred doctor determined to enact a devious fraud against his missionary mother in order to attain his fortune–is incidental to his own consciousness. This kind of narrative total immersion is typical of Portis, from my diminutive sample, but the disjuncture between this particular narrator’s view and how things may actually be is especially distinct. Ray is a failure, a dilettante who has never been able to settle on anything, but he views himself as distinguished from the rest of the populace, an unrecognized genius. His delusions of grandeur are often hilarious, as when he compares himself to America’s founding father: “I had enormous respect for General Washington, as who doesn’t, but I also liked the man, believing as I did that we shared many of the same qualities. Perhaps I should say ‘some of the same qualities’ because in many ways we are not at all alike. He, after all, had only read two books on warfare, Bland’s Exercises and Sim’s Military Guide, and I had a read a thousand. And of course he was a big man while I am compact of build” (141).
Ray’s denseness about his own deficiencies find a mirror in Dr. Leo Symes, owner of the brokendown bus called the Dog of the South, who becomes his traveling companion. Symes is a distorted future version of Ray, full of stories of how he has been wronged, obsessed with elaborate schemes to attain the potential he never manifested. Also, Symes is obsessed with one John Selmer Dix, the author of self-help books for salesmen, and is convinced that Dix’s texts hold the keys to understanding, well, everything. I mention this because it highlights one of several shared trait between the two drifters: both are convinced that everything can be distilled to an essential right and wrong way of doing things. They are underdogs, dreamers incapable of joining reality long enough to demand results from their goals. Everyone loves an underdog, but these two are so very delusional that it’s uncomfortable to observe their mishaps. It is possible that they are modern versions of Don Quixote, but unlike in the tale of that venerable forebearer, there’s never a sense of a defined reality from which the characters are departing. Everything and everyone is deranged, events are disjointed from a traditional sense of cause and effect. The picaresque chaos of it all is made even more distinct by its characters belief that, beneath the seeming meaninglessness, there is a correct way to live. It’s a book that’s supposed to be funny, I know, and, as I hope my meager quoting displays, it was marvelously deadpan, but I found its overall effect to be disquieting and nihilistic. It could just be me.
In fact, supposedly funny books often have the side effect of making me very sad. I have fiddled with days on this post trying to say something about the why of this with no coherent result, so I shall give it up for now. Of these three, only Dogma didn’t depress me–probably because so much anxiety and absurd intellectual distress is built into the book itself.