Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Of Poisons and Penguins 

Having been disturbed by the sheer number of profiles on dating site Gaydargirls which respond to the question "Favourite Author?" with variations on "Don't read much" (where's an intellectual dating site when you need one?) I was at last motivated to end my own four month hiatus from reading this week, picking up two excellent books I've had on the go for ages.

The Name of The Rose, by Umberto Eco, is easily one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read and is the better known of the two, so I won't say much about it. But a warning - avoid Eco's later Reflections on The Name of The Rose. Mostly composed of thoughts about the process of novel-writing, it added very little to a novel which really stands alone perfectly well. For the most part, Reflections just left me grating my teeth at Eco's constant references to "the most ingenuous reader", which made it abundantly clear that he'd rather his book had been read by no one but university professors trained in semiotics and medieval history. A real pity, since the original book, while consciously intellectual, manages to betray very little of the author's apparent elitism, and is much the better for it. There's not much that can beat reading about two groups of senior monks resorting to fists and name-calling in a discussion of whether Jesus Christ owned the clothes he stood up in, or a sex scene entirely composed of quotes from divine scripture.

Penguin Lost, by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, came out last year and is the sequel to Death and The Penguin. Nicely bizarre throughout, and often quite dark, both books are well worth reading, preferably without the 18 month gap between them that I had. The first book left Victor, a writer of obituaries for people who aren't yet dead, escaping a Mafia world he'd unwittingly and unwillingly entered into, by sailing away on a boat to the Antarctic which had been intended for his ailing penguin friend Misha, whom Victor had earlier liberated from a bankrupt Kiev zoo. Feeling guilty for this, Victory returns in the sequel, and spends 180 or so of 260 pages trying to find Misha, along the way becoming a speechwriter for a Ukrainian politician; having an affair with a dead friend's Muscovite-Korean wife; journeying to Chechnya, where he cremates the bodies of men from both sides of the war; and finally taking a team of disabled arm wrestlers to international stardom in Croatia.

This sequel isn't as well written as Death and The Penguin, but it speeds along nicely, and provides interesting reflections on Ukrainian society and politics, laced with Catch-22 style cynical humour (mostly revolving around the corrupt electioneering of Victor's boss Andrey Pavlovich) and with just enough of Misha to make fans of the first book happy.

Generally good stuff, and I'd recommend both Eco and Kurkov as holiday reading, and a good escape from god-awful wizards and barely-written crap about the Mona Lisa.

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