Penguin Lost

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Penguin Lost Originally published in Russian as Zakon uliki by Folio, Kharkov, 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Andrej Kurkov and 2003 Diogenes Verlag, AG, Zürich, Switzerland Translation © George Bird, 2004 Melville House Publishing 145 Plymouth Street Brooklyn, NY 11201 ISBN: 978-1-61219-075-4 Library of Congress Control Number: 2011925817

characters in the story

From earlier:

Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov a writer

Misha his penguin Nina niece of militiaman Sergey Stepanenko and partner of Viktor

Sonya daughter of late Misha-non-penguin, adopted by Viktor

Lyosha a guard

Igor Lvovich sometime editor of Capital News

Ilya Semyonovich a vet

In Kiev:

Andrey Pavlovich Loza candidate for election to People’s Assembly

Pasha his aide

In Chechnya:

Khachayev Chechen entrepreneur

Aza his manager

Seva slave to Aza

1 It took Viktor three days to recover from the four spent crossing Drake Passage. In which time, the scientists who had sailed with him from Ushaia in the Horizon were already acclimatized and working fast to complete measurements and analyses before the onset of polar night. Viktor kept to his quarters in the main block, emerging only to eat or to take a peek outside. He went un­questioned, and even made friends with a biophysicist researching the limits of human endurance, such as the crossing of Drake Passage would have provided ample material for, had he not spent the whole of it seasick in his bunk. Vernadsky Base was soon got the hang of, and Viktor ventured forth, wearing the obligatory bright red with luminous yellow stripes, and entering name and time of exit on a board to the left of the door. Failure to return within the hour would, he’d been told, bring the whole base out on search. The base had known tragedy, and it was not hard to see why, after losing 16 men and two supply aircraft, the British had presented it to Ukraine, quite apart from the Devil’s Island appearance of it, viewed from the shore. The one and only place to relax was the bar, but there being neither barman nor drink, you either brought your own or did without. Viktor saw his first penguins when walking with biophysicist Stanislav down by the dinghy slipway, and compared with his Misha, now languishing in Kiev, they looked toy-sized. “These are Adélie penguins,” Stanislav explained. “We’re not Antarctica proper, just 7

an island.” Their walk took them, via the noisy gener­ator hut, to the set-apart magnetic research lab. “We’ve another Stanislav here,” Stanislav confided, looking around uneasily. “In the sick bay. He’s from Moscow. I mentioned you. He’d like to see you.” * The ailing Muscovite, a big man of about 40, lay on his back, legs bent, the bed being too short. His massive face was of a pallor suggestive of the worst. Biophysicist Stanislav slipped away. “What are you here for?” the sick man demanded. “Just to look round.” “Cut the crap! I’m Stanislav Bronikovsky, banker. Put on the spot and lying low. And you are?” “Lying low, too.” “Good.” “Why so?” “Makes us comrades in adversity. You might have come to do me in.” A long silence followed. Viktor rose to leave. “Come when you can,” said Stanislav abruptly. “We’ll play chess . . . I could be of use to you.” From then on, Viktor became a regular visitor. He was not short of time, and it was cold outside, although less so than he had expected, a mere –15°. The living quarters were well heated, but the sanatorium was even better. They played chess, and as they did so, chatted about everything under the sun. It did not escape Viktor that occasionally Bronikovsky was sounding him out, but there was nothing strange about that. Bronikovsky plainly suffered from a persecution mania, and a highly developed one at that. Viktor


would never have believed it possible that anyone might send a killer to the Antarctic in search of him. Who, after all, was he that anyone should be sent that far? But Bronikovsky was important and powerful, a Queen to Viktor’s pawn. Bronikovsky’s fears might be well founded. Added to which, his strange, undiagnosed illness was growing steadily worse, in spite of the expedition medic’s antibiotic injections. The medic had thoughts of consulting the Americans at Palmer Base, but was put off by the 300 km separating the two bases. So, racked with stomach pains and eating nothing, Bronikovsky lived off his massive frame much as the camel lives off its hump. As his pallor became bluish, he whispered that he knew who was poisoning him, but left it at that, and played bravely on, losing in stony silence. Reaching under his bed, he produced a half full bottle of the Argentine vodka Viktor remembered trying and not liking. “Look,” he said, pouring two cups, “I’ve a proposition. It involves asking a favour.” Viktor looked attentive. “Tomorrow a Pole called Wojciech puts in on his yacht to take me off, give me a new identity. But seeing me like this, he won’t . . . So you go in my place, if you like, taking my wife a letter and a credit card which is yours to use on the way.” “Except that I’m not you.” “For Wojciech, the work of a minute.” Viktor thought for a moment, then nodded his agreement. Bronikovsky’s pallid face registered a feeble smile.

2 A month or so later, Polish passport in one pocket, blue Ukrain-


ian in the other, Viktor stepped from a train in Kiev, shoulder bag lightly packed with casino chips, notebook, and a packet of Polish pastries. Emerging from the station, instead of proceeding in the normal way on autopilot to the bus stop and thence home to his flat, he stopped. His autopilot wasn’t working, and his first few steps in the station yard were those of a novice moon-walker, while everyone else went rushing by, guidance systems in full working order. Still, he had to go somewhere. In his pocket were the Ukrainian hryvnas which had sojourned with him in south polar regions, and provided there had been no geographical creep Russia-wards in his absence, he was able to afford the small pleasures of life. A bus journey, for instance. But where to? Looking around and spotting a newspaper kiosk, he made towards it, the asphalt suddenly firmer beneath his feet. Of the many papers displayed he opted for Kiev’s Capital News, and for some 30 minutes stood absorbed in its contents. Life hadn’t changed: foreign visitors delivering charitable aid to orphanages; two Ukrainian People’s Deputies imprisoned in Germany for fraudulent banking; businessman’s family shot dead in Kherson; opening of super garden-centre at Obolon; and on the last page but one, a couple of wretchedly written obituaries, all the more distressing for having been signed with Viktor’s own pseudonym. The Editor-in-Chief, it appeared, was no longer his quondam patron Igor Lvovich, but one P.D.Weizmann. For just one brief blissful moment he was back standing with Penguin Misha at the grave of some departed bigwig, sun streaming down, while some nearest and dearest delivered words having no effect on him or Misha, who were outside it all, Misha part of the ritual, he part of Misha. And there they’d stand, unfeelingly waiting for it to be done with – as if they were immortal. 10

It would be good to be immortal. And to die young, cut off from physical time as if under a bell jar, yet seeing the trees on Shevchenko Boulevard, dogs cocking their legs, girls growing into women, while remaining the person one was. Foolish thoughts. But easier, pleasanter than wise ones. Where was Misha now? At the Clinic? Resting between funerals? Baykov Cemetery would be the place to look – when the Mercedes turned up in force. The grim icy waste that was home to Misha commanded respect – he’d not forgotten the searing cold to his cheeks. That was a country in its own right, giving not a damn what flags conqueror scientists sought to raise, secure in the knowledge that its native populace, its penguins, would remain free and unbowed come what might. The unprotected, paper frontiers of their “conquests” were the vanity and vainglory of the geography schoolbook for the patriotic edification of the children of a few countries bent on appearing bigger, colder, more inaccessible and of greater consequence than they actually were. Something else they vaunted were the penguins rounded up and brought back to their zoos to create the illusion of a quainter, more accessible Antarctica. Roll up, this enclosure’s Antarctica. Breakfast at eight. Lunch at one. Muck out at four. As he tucked the paper into his bag, the sun broke through the louring sky, and just as unexpectedly retired again for a while. It was still summer, though autumn was on its way. As he was on his – though to where had yet to be decided. Home to his flat and a bath was where he felt like going. His next priority being to find Misha, and make up for doing him out of his flight to Antarctica – a debt only he, Viktor, could, and would, repay. From the window of his bus, streets and pavements were again lit by the sun. The elderly man in jeans and white football shirt seat11

ed next to him was immersed in an Emigrate-to-Canada brochure in the form of a quiz. A Higher Technical education earned you three points, an Intermediate – two points, Higher Arts – one point, and so on under each heading. A total of 15 or over put you in with a chance, so why not apply? Assessing himself at eight points, Viktor sighed with relief. Maple Leaf Land was not for him. A paucity of chance offered more scope than a surfeit. From the bus stop to his block was about 30 metres, and the way led past a kindergarten, a school and a tiny square. In no hurry, he stopped to watch a group of two- and three-yearolds playing trains, circling the sandpit on invisible rails, hands on the shoulders of the one in front, waddling like so many penguins. He fell to thinking of Sonya and her father, Misha-non-penguin. Odd, Misha’s outliving his non-real equivalent, as hopefully was the case. With greater assurance and a spring in his step he walked on to the entrance to his block, newly-operative autopilot disorien­tatingly disengaged. Looking up at his windows, he felt heavily oppressed. Mashka, the neighbours’ cat, came flying down the stairs, and by the time he reached his own floor he was himself again. His metal door looked as impregnable as ever, except that beneath the existing keyhole another had been cut, leaving Viktor to finger his own now inoperative key uneasily, and to take in the new rubber doormat embossed with the English word welcome. Below, a door banged, footsteps followed, and he froze. A jingling of keys one floor down, the opening and shutting of a door, then silence. Cautiously he made his way down to the entrance, and looked out, still in the grip of nameless past anxieties. Opposite, beyond the courtyard clotheslines, was the newly painted green door of the block where Old Tonya lived, one floor up. Mother of his friend To12

lik, Old Tonya sold milk in the yard, as she had all her life, her Milko, milk-o! from six in the morning on serving to prepare him for his mother’s Up you get! an hour and a half later. Striding across the yard, he went up to her flat. “Why, it’s little Vik!” she exclaimed happily, opening the door. “Thought you’d gone away. Come in.” Neat in appearance, she took good care of herself, and though probably at least 60, had nothing of the old granny about her. Selling milk kept you young, did wonders for the complexion. “Like some broth?” she asked. “I bought a chicken, but broth was all it was good for.” As they made for the kitchen, he glanced into the sitting room and saw on the sideboard a portrait of the eternally young Tolik, her son. Tolik had fallen to his death from a tree. In those days there had been any number of fine old trees to build houses in, then look down on the petty world of adults building Communism. It was plain, even then, that what each was in fact building was his own private version of it, secretly competing to be the one with the most smoked salmon and Soviet champagne in his fridge at home. Another age entirely! The broth recalled something of the distant past, too – the good homely childhood that had been his, with chicken legs of toothdefeating toughness, and great yellow lakes of broth patterned with globules of chicken fat. “There’s a bit of cold rice,” Old Tonya said, “Like some?” He nodded, and two spoonfuls of fried rice went plunging to the bottom of his broth. “Where do you live now?” she asked. “Over there.” “So you’re renting the flat out. I thought you’d sold it.” “A friend’s niece and a little girl are there.” “Such a nice husband she’s got – tall, militiaman or a soldier, from the look of him.” 13

“Really? I didn’t know about the husband.” He looked anxiously across to his flat. “Could I, I wonder, use your phone?” “On the fridge.” He dialled his number, and Sonya’s clear voice answered. “Uncle Kolya?” “No, Viktor.” A slight pause, then, “Uncle Vik! Where are you?” “Kiev.” “Is Misha with you?” “No, but he’s somewhere here in Kiev.” “Lost?” “Yes, but I’ll find him.” “You must, and bring him home. Auntie Nina’s got a cat and it scratches. Misha never scratched.” “No,” said Viktor sadly. “Is Auntie Nina there?” “She’s gone to the shops. Are you coming here?” “Not just yet. And probably when Auntie Nina and Uncle Kolya aren’t there. He lives with you, does he, this uncle?” “Yes, and he’s nice. Bought me roller skates. He’s just gone away for a couple of days. He’s going to bring me some mussels.” “So he’s gone to the sea. What does he do?” “Some sort of watchman – something special . . . But here’s Auntie Nina. Like to talk to her?” “I’ll ring later,” he said, replacing the receiver. “Spend the night here, if over there’s not on,” Old Tonya said matter-of-factly, now standing by the stove. “Thanks, Tonya, but if I may I’ll just leave my bag, and collect it tomorrow.” “Of course.”


A N D R E Y K U R K O V is a Ukrainian writer born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1961. After graduating from the Kiev Foreign Languages Institute, he resisted pressure to become a KGB translator for his military service and instead opted to serve as a prison warder in Odessa. Afterwards, he worked as a journalist and film cameraman, then borrowed money to self-publish his first books, which he sold himself on the sidewalks of Kiev. He is now one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers in Ukrainian history, and his books have been translated into 25 languages. G E O R G E B I R D has translated extensively from German and Russian. In 1986 he won the Pluto Crime Prize for his novel Death in Leningrad.

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