Eastern European Challenge - 4/12 Ukraine ****
It is hard to mix menace and humour, but, then again it is hard to be a hack writer in Kiev, who is "unlucky with his muses" and whose only friend is a penguin.
Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a king penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.
Viktor is trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose. He writes short stories which he tries to sell to newspapers, but even Capital News declines his efforts.
"It might get in on a Friday," says the elderly assistant editor. "You know - for balance. If there's a glut of bad news, readers look for something neutral."
But two days later he is visited at home by the mysterious editor of Capital News. "This is highjly confidential. What we are after is a gifted obituarist, a master of the succenct. Snappy, pithy, way out stuffs the idea."
He is to write, anonymously, "obelisks" for the not yet dead. The trouble is, once he has written about them, highlighting certain prescribed incidents and qualities, they don't stay undead for very long.
The first hint of trouble comes with a visit from Misha (helpfully referred to as Misha-non-penguin), who orders an obituary and is prepared to pay "at least double what the priciest whore charges." Viktor is sucked into a world of gangsters, where life is cheap - and black and white Misha is hired to attend funerals as the ultimate status symbol mourner.
Kurkov talks of writing about life in a country which is younger than most of inhabitants, and the tensions and absurdities of nascent Ukraine lend themselves to the surreal, delivered with ample humour that shrouds something much darker.