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Gratuitous cat picture

…because it’s what the internet’s for.

There is a tenuous Russian connection, as although she’s universally known as Chicken, her real name is in fact Chapaev. When she first came into my life, I was reading Victor Pelevin’s novel Chapaev i Pustota (variously translated as The Clay Machine Gun and Buddha’s Little Finger). It’s far from being his best book (I’d still go for his early short stories, or the 2004 novel ChislaNumbers — which for some reason hasn’t been translated yet), but Chapaev somehow seemed an appropriately inappropriate name at the time. It lasted less than six months, mainly because nobody else could pronounce it, and despite looking more like a cow, she was renamed Chicken. And yes, she is sitting in the middle of a cheese plant.

Anyway, to continue the slightly random and tenuous nature of this post, Russian literature has produced some really great animal characters. Bulgakov undoubtedly created two of the most memorable — Begemot in Master and Margarita, and Sharikov in Sobach’e serdtse (Heart of a Dog). Clearly, being a cat woman, my vote goes to Begemot, who is truly one of the coolest literary characters of any species. There’s also Platonov’s proletarian bear in Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit). Bulgakov uses the fantastic to give his animals life, but the bear in Kotlovan is just there, as though it’s the most natural thing in the world for a bear to be working in a smithy and rooting out kulaks. It’s a brilliant book, and especially worth reading now Robert Chandler’s new translation is available.

But the best animal character in Russian (well, Ukrainian, in this case, but he writes in Russian) literature, if not in all literature, is surely Misha the penguin in Andrei Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost. Simultaneously tragic and comic, Misha’s silences are among the most profound ever written. If you haven’t read these two books, I strongly recommend you get hold of them, put aside a couple of days, and enjoy.

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