Sunday, March 4, 2012

Misc. Awards News for Early March + A Penguin

There’s more award news this week: for one thing, Oleg Pavlov won the Solzhenitsyn Prize, an annual prize that carries an award of $25,000. I’ll take the easy way out and quote the message I received from Pavlov’s literary agency, Elkost, which says the prize recognizes “works in which troubles of the Russian life are shown with rare moral purity and sense of tragedy, for consecutiveness and steadiness in search of truth.” That’s not too far from the jury’s quote that’s included in a news item on Previous Solzhenitsyn Prize winners include Valentin Rasputin, Aleksei Varlamov, and Viktor Astaf’ev. I’ve written about two of Pavlov’s novels: Казенная сказка (A Barracks Tale) and Асистолия (Asystole or Flatline).

Meanwhile, the Russian Prize (Русская премия) announced their longlist last week. The long fiction longlist includes Yuz Aleshkovskii’s Маленький тюремный роман (A Little Prison Novel), which I bought a few weeks ago, and Elena Katishonovk’s Когда уходит человек (When a Person Leaves). Maria Rybakova’s Gnedich (a novel in verse) and Sasha Sokolov’s Триптих (Triptych) are among the short fiction entries. The full longlists for poetry, short prose, and long prose are all on the Russian Prize Website. The Russian Prize is awarded to writers who live outside Russia and write in Russian.

Misha is a king penguin.
Finally, (in more ways than one!) I read Andrei Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, in George Bird’s translation… I’d included the novel on my list of books for a program at my town library last week and realized too late that I could get the original through interlibrary loan. The book seems to have more than one Russian title; the most common being Пикник на льду, literally Picnic on the Ice. Picnics on the ice are a pastime of Viktor, a writer in Kiev who composes obituaries of people still among the living: Viktor and his pet penguin, Misha, go with a mutual friend to the Dnepr, where Misha swims under the ice while the humans enjoy snacks.

I was glad not to know much about the book before reading so will just say that Kurkov’s plot includes Viktor finding himself caring for a small girl and needing to keep a low profile because of post-Soviet dangers linked to those obituaries. Of course Viktor also frequently buys frozen fish. I thought the book was enjoyable, fairly light reading with an apt blend of absurdity and social commentary. And who can resist a sad, affectionate penguin, a precocious little girl, and their lonely caregiver? I almost want to say that Melancholic Absurdity is the novel’s main character.

Blogger Marie Cloutier, also known as Boston Bibliophile, recently heard Kurkov speak at a bookstore event and said he discussed similarities between penguins and Soviets. To quote Marie, “both, he said, are used to rigid civil structures and don’t know how to operate outside of their group.” I thought Aleksei Balakin’s review of Picnic on the Ice, in a 2006 issue of the journal Критическая масса (Critical Mass) offered a nice analysis of the paradox of Kurkov’s work, which is popular in Europe but relatively unknown in Russia.

Melville House, which published Death and the Penguin in the U.S. last year, has released two other Kurkov books in Bird’s translations: Penguin Lost (2011) and The Case of the General’s Thumb (2012). Additional Kurkov books are available in English translation from U.K. publishers.

Up Next: That darn list of recent and upcoming translations. And Roman Senchin’s Информация (The Information). We’ll see which I finish first.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Image Credit: King penguin photo by Samuel Blanc, via Wikipedia.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out. Seeing Kurkov was fun and I'm looking forward to the other two that Melville has. And it's good to know his other books are available in English, too!

  2. You are very welcome, Marie: the timing was perfect. Enjoy your books!

  3. Kurkov and Bird are new names to me, but I see that Words without Borders has run a review of "The Case of the General's Thumb" in their April issue:

  4. Thank you for the comment, Jamie. Kurkov seems to have very low name recognition among Russian readers, so you're not alone in not knowing him! Thank you for the link to the review... Complete Review also ran a positive review of The Case of the General's Thumb, just a few days ago: