Florin Bican - Penguins
What's them penguins doin' here?
A little while ago there were no penguins in Bucharest, but now there are many. How they got there isn't all that important because they are there, and they must be dealt with. A senior citizen offers that the “boffins at the city mall must've brought 'em”, which immediately compels the growing crowd to comment critically upon the reckless spending of the Government. First the palm trees, another citizen notes, and now penguins. What won't they spend their money on!
Florin Bican's Penguins is a satirical examination of the citizens that make up post-Communist Bucharest. They are presented as archetypal, to the extent where they are named “senior citizen”, “Gypsy”, “worker”, “Grandma”. They are not people but types, they offer not words or statements but commentary based upon their political and economic background. The story itself clusters around the penguins for its entirety; the penguins, on the other hand, do nothing, content to return the increasingly bewildered gaze of the citizens.
Bican's penguins are an absurd interjection into an ordinary world. They are a destabilising force, their very presence allowing the swelling assembly of men and women to comment openly on the state of their society and economy, both as it stands presently and as it was. The penguins are in effect a stand-in for – whatever the people want. Most importantly, they allow commentary, criticism and the biting honesty of laughter.
Bican's story reminds in terms of its effects Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Magherita. In that novel, Satan and his lackeys descend upon Moscow to cause havoc and run amok amongst the suffocating bureaucracy of the Soviet state. Bulgakov was able to project his criticism of the State through the obvious absurdity of Satan (and particularly the mischievous and malevolent cat, Behemoth) – essentially hiding in plain sight. Much in the way that nobody notices the magician's tricks because they are too busy staring at the assistant's bosom, which has conveniently fallen from the restrictive grasp of her too-tight bodice, Bulgakov was able to distract the censor's through the use of clever imagery and sharp allegory instead of direct attacks (this brief summary avoids the fact that Bulgakov's work was, in fact, heavily censored upon publication and was burned by the author himself at least once in fear of discovery and punishment. It also glosses over the important and rather excellent intertwining of mythology with cultural criticism, the technical aspects of the novel, and its startling aesthetic and literary beauty). To return to Bican, the penguins seem similar to Bulgakov's fantasies because they have allowed him to bypass the necessary constructions required to engage in sophisticated social criticism. Instead, Bican is able to directly and immediately criticise the State, capitalism, communism, the wilfull ignorance of the peasantry and the avarice of the middle-class.
Penguins successfully combines laughter with criticism – the story is very funny. The characters are archetypes taken to their extremes, and they mutter exactly what one would expect, particularly the Gypsy, who defends his theory that they might be good to eat. One particularly memorable phrase has a woman walk off “...through the landscape with her immaculate breastplate of starched boobs.”
The story is narrated from the perspective of an intelligent, clear-eyed but unaffiliated observer, one who seems to sympathise with the intent of each person without succumbing to their cant. There are a few wry asides (mostly concerning crematoriums...), but the narrative as a whole stands on its intent to present the conflicting aspects of Bucharest in their most concentrated form. With the exception of the final two paragraphs, which serve as cutting reminders that change, no matter its form, provides conservatives a time to which they can look fondly back, and progressives with an ideology from which to create their opposition, the story is told entirely in present tense, which further enhances the effect of the closing lines. Penguins is clever and funny, and bold enough to make a story that purports to be about a number of penguins descending upon Bucharest, really about the people contained within and their reactions to unfamiliar circumstances, and the impossibility of pleasing every ideological group, no matter how similar or far apart their platforms.
Penguins by Florin Bican is a short story from Bucharest Tales from the New Europe Writers series
Other stories from Bucharest Tales from the New Europe Writers series include:
---Lungu, Dan - Mr. Escu's Adventure
---Ormsby, Mike - Democracy
---Ruşti, Doina - Bill Clinton's Hand
---Tanase, Stelian - Zgaiba
Index of short stories under review from Absinthe 13: Spotlight on Romania
Index of short stories under review from The Review of Contemporary Fiction - Vol. XXX, #1 - Writing From Postcommunist Romania
Index of short stories under review
The reviews for this book were made possible thanks to a kind gift from my friend Bogdan Suceavă.