The Case of the General's Thumb



“An ebullient black comedy … reminiscent of the best of the Soviet dissident literature.”


“Kurkov is a fine satirist and a real, blackly comic find.”


“Full of touches of grim insight and tactful surrealism … a cross between John le Carré and Bulgakov's
The Master and Margarita


“A rich romp riddled with black humour.… Kurkov flips from mock-tragedy to comedy and back again, planting the ominous and the absurd neatly among deadpan descriptions of a daily life in denial.”



Death and the Penguin
successfully balances the social awkwardness of Woody Allen, the absurd clashes of Jean-Luc Godard and the escalating paranoia of Franz Kafka.”


“A tragicomic masterpiece.”


“A striking portrait of post-Soviet isolation … In this bleak moral landscape Kurkov manages to find ample refuge for his dark humor.”


“Pathos and humor shine through to make this a black comedy of rare distinction, and the penguin is an invention of genius.”


“The deadpan tone works perfectly and it will be a hardhearted reader who is not touched by Viktor's relationship with his unusual pet.”


Death and the Penguin
lives and breathes the puzzled, dislodged dignity of its better-than-human hero. It may turn out to be a minor classic and get Russian literature going again after the post-Soviet hiatus.”



“Anyone who gave themselves the pleasure of reading
Death and the Penguin
should certainly treat themselves to this sequel. And if you missed it, never mind, read this one anyway: it's delicious.”


“There is more magic in his realism than in a library of witches and wizards.”


Death and the Penguin
was praised for its brutal humor, tender humanity, and all-out guts.
Penguin Lost
is a sequel equally superlative and twice as readable.”


“Rich, authentic, and entertaining.”


“Kurkov writes the kind of believable action story that has led to comparisons with Le Carré…. This morally grotesque post-Soviet world is tinged with Dostoevskian absurdity.”



Originally published in Russian as
Igra v otrezanny palets
by FOLIO, Kharkov and Moscow

First published in Great Britain in by the Harvill Press
© 1999 Andrey Kurkov and Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich
Translation © George Bird

First Melville House printing: January 2012

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

eISBN: 978-1-61219-061-7

A catalog record for this book is available
from the Library of Congress.



, night of 20th–21st May, 1997

Sergeant Voronko of the State Vehicle Inspectorate loved his snug little glass booth on Independence Square in the heart of Kiev, and never more than in the small hours, when Khreshchatik Street was free of traffic, and nipping out for a smoke was to experience a vibrant, blanketing silence very different from the fragile night stillness of his home village. Kiev lay open before him, not frightening as to most at that hour, but stirring feelings of affection and pride. He was its protector, security officer, bodyguard; solicitous proprietor of a vast and varied domain embracing the Central Post Office, the fountains, even the red Coca-Cola balloon tethered near where the Lenin monument once stood.

At 1.30 a.m. he got out his laptop, a token of gratitude from a Tax Police friend for supplying documentation for a top-range Opel Kadett illegally imported from Germany. A small favour between friends, which is, after all, what friends are for.

So, to the nocturnal enjoyment of Khreshchatik Street deserta, he now added that of playing cards with the computer, and since it was just a computer, no shame attached to losing. The hand it dealt him tonight was a peach, but no sooner had he played his first card than a bulb on the panel in front of him flashed and a tinny Seven! Proceed at once to Eleven! intruded on the peace and quiet of the booth.

Voronko acknowledged the message, slipped the laptop into his briefcase, and set off in his SVI Zhiguli.

Post 11 was Pechersk, reasonably close. He could be there and back, and still get a few hands of cards in before his relief arrived.

He had not been gone five minutes when the Coca-Cola balloon heaved itself slowly up into the Khreshchatik Street sky, and dangling from it was a body.

Seven! Attendance no longer required. Return to post
, Tinny Voice instructed over the car radio as Pechersk Bridge came in sight.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Voronko performed a u-turn and made his way back to Khreshchatik Street and the prospect of three hours' cards.


, 23rd May, 1997

“A rest's what you need, Nik,” Ivan Lvovich observed as they drew away from the station in a dark blue BMW.

It was true, after seven days' travel on top of a hectic month selling a flat, packing and seeing off a container of family effects.

Tadzhikistan now seemed remote, alien. Tanya and Volodya were safe with relatives in Saratov, where it would be pleasant enough now, in summer, with the Volga to swim in or fish, and good Slav faces around instead of the furtive, unsmiling Tadzhik variety.

“Kiev can wait,” said Ivan Lvovich. “First, a spell of recuperation at a nice little place with all mod cons. And while you're there I can brief you.”

The “nice little place” recalled Granny's chalet with garden near Zhitomir, where Nik had spent whole summers with his mother until his parents' deaths in '65. From then on home was with his father's people in distant Dushanbe. There he finished his schooling, and graduated from the Institute of Military Interpreters. After a spell at HQ Military District, two postings to Africa. On his return, marriage to Tanya. They had a son, Volodya, and all had gone well until Tanya's sacking by a boss who took
Independence to mean a Geological Scientific Research Institute cleansed of non-Tadzhiks. Later, he rang and apologised. Anyway, they'd be better off in Russia, he said. But would they? Dumped in Saratov, like Tanya and Volodya, on folk with scarcely a kopek to their name?

His chancing to meet Ivan Lvovich had been most fortunate. He'd been coming from Border Guards Admin., seething at having his transfer to Russia refused, when a middle-aged colonel asked the way to the Hotel for Officers, and he'd offered to show him. As they walked, they talked.

That evening, over a meal in a Turkish restaurant, Ivan Lvovich mentioned a new Service being created in Ukraine, and the possibility of getting in at an early stage, especially given the plus of a Zhitomir granny. There would, of course, be help with move and accommodation, though it would take time to organize.

“Beer drinker?” Ivan Lvovich asked, as they shot out into a blaze of sunlight on the river embankment.


“Stop at the crayfish,” Ivan Lvovich ordered the driver, spotting a cardboard notice, two buckets, and a young man on a collapsible stool in swimming trunks and sun glasses.

“How much?”

“Fifty kopeks each.”

“I'll have twenty.”

Ten minutes later they were clear of the city, in a lofty pine forest.

Nik thought suddenly of his friend Lyoshka's “Life is Chance”, a dictum never far from his lips, until Zaire, where his, not Nik's, was the vehicle that went over the land mine.

“That's it,” said Ivan Lvovich indicating a Finnish chalet approached by a gravel path. “Old Party-high-up retreat.”

It had three rooms, a kitchen and a veranda.

“Saucepan for the crayfish, beer from the fridge, and we're in business,” said Ivan Lvovich.

Going through to the bedroom, Nik rummaged through his
cases for the leather-wrapped antique Turkish yataghan bought in a Samarkand market.

“A small gift for getting us here,” he said, presenting it to Ivan Lvovich.

“Bloody hell!” he exploded, brandishing the elegantly curved blade. “This in your kit all the way from Dushanbe! They only had to find that at any one of the frontiers and your feet wouldn't have touched!”

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