By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman |New York, September 22, 2022
“The penguin,” said Viktor bleakly, “is me.”
You must read Death and the Penguin to appreciate the impact of that line. I don’t think I’ve spoiled the book by sharing it because you have to read the whole first. I am perhaps only adding suspense as you consider the gentle, ironic and dark humor of Andrey Kurkov’s story.
Kurkov’s writing has been compared to Beckett, Pinter, Kafka, and Vonnegut—all worthy comparisons though none of these writers lived in the eye of their national storms in the way Kurkov has and is. Born in Russia but moved to Ukraine when he was only two, Kurkov writes in Russian and Ukrainian and fully considers himself a Ukrainian. During the Soviet occupation he worked as a prison guard, journalist, screenwriter. His fiction was published as samizdat literature, and he published himself. In 2005 he was declared a persona non grata in Russia.
He lives both in Kiev and now in the countryside near the border. He continues to speak out and broadcast Letter from Ukraine on BBC Radio 4. He is a leading voice of the resistance to the Russian invasion of his country. He is also President of PEN Ukraine, speaking out and working on behalf of writers.
The Vaclav Havel Disturbing the Peace Award is given to a writer of quality and an individual of courage. Andrey Kurkov is both.
It was also a pleasure reading the works and learning about the stories of the other four nominees: Akram Aylisli from Azerbaijan, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija from Uganda, Oleg Sentsov, also from Ukraine and Anand Teltumbde of India, all writers who have stood their ground in their societies and written truth as they have witnessed.
In honoring Andrey Kurkov, the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation honors the creative artist and the individual citizen. In societies where freedom is restricted and “truth” is often shaped by the dictates of governments, not individual conscience, facts or observation, the imagination is the only refuge and space where a writer can live and think.
The wonderful imagination of Andrey Kurkov introduces the reader to Misha, the penguin, whom the narrator Viktor has saved from the zoo which can no longer feed him. In Grey Bees Kurkov introduces Sergey who lives in a village of three streets in Ukraine’s Grey Zone between the two forces in conflict. In order for his bees to survive, he begins a journey, his own odyssey where he and the reader meet those on both sides of the battle lines.
“Everyone else in little Starhorodivka had wanted to leave when the fighting began. And so they left—because they feared for their lives more than they feared for their property, and that stronger fear had won out. But the war hadn’t made Sergeyich fear for his life. It had only made him confused, and indifferent to everything around him. It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: his sense of responsibility. And this sense, which could make him worry terribly at any hour of the day, was focused entirely on one object: his bees.”
Kurkov’s writing does what the best literature does, it connects the human soul and spirit to a truth that can survive and perhaps even save, but truth without illusions.