We are told to look on the bright side of life, but sometimes the world is a dark place. No one understands better than these authors, whose characters encounter horrors from open-plan offices to Ukrainian gangsters. But these novels are far from gloomy—wicked humor and absurd situations will keep you laughing until the last page.
Mission to Kala
Mongo Beti. Peter Green, tr.
After failing his exams, Jean-Marie Mezda expects to return to his village in disgrace. Instead, he is celebrated as a highly educated man and sent on a mission to find someone else’s runaway wife. In 1950s Cameroon, Mezda begins to feel like a colonizer in his own home until he realizes that his fellow villagers are not as naïve as he first thought.
Jonas Karlsson. Neil Smith, tr.
Bjorn is a compulsive office worker obsessed with productivity and his co-worker’s inferiority. In his nondescript building, he discovers a hallway room in which he can do his best paperwork. Office politics become vicious when the other employees deny the room’s existence, and Bjorn decides that he must take matters into his own hands.
Death and the Penguin
Andrey Kurkov. George Bird, tr.
In post-Soviet Kiev, the aspiring writer Viktor has a quiet life with his penguin, Misha. After taking a job writing obituaries for still-living notables, violence begins to shake the city and disrupt Viktor’s life. The deaths continue, and Viktor must decide whether to ignore the signs around him or admit that he might be more than a bystander.
Victor Pelevin. Andrew Bromfield,tr.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Although Pelevin dedicated this book to “the Heroes of the Soviet Cosmos,” he uses black humor to attack the mythology that surrounds them. Omon, named after the acronym for Russian special police forces, veers from the path his alcoholic father planned for him when he enlists in a military academy, dreaming of space flight. In this disturbing novel, one of the greatest sources of Soviet pride is turned against the state to expose its fundamental absurdity.
Dear Committee Members
At Payne University, Professor Jason Fitger spends most of his time writing recommendation letters as the English department crumbles around him. This epistolary farce describes his faltering literary career, his desperate appeals for a favorite graduate student, and his ruined personal life, which he has cannibalized for writing material.