Yuri Andrukhovych: Photo © Nina Andrukhovych
Laudation by Aleš Šteger
I have been drawn to ruins ever since my childhood. This is the opening sentence of Central Eastern Revision (Central’no-skhidna reviziya), an essay composed by the Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych – an essay forming the first half of a book titled My Europe (Moya Yevropa), written at the close of the 20th century jointly with the Polish author Andrzej Stasiuk. More than a quote from Danilo Kiš, this sentence is a signpost through creativity, a reference point and a precise delineation of the territory covered by Andrukhovych’s literary oeuvre. In terms of literature, the image of the ruins points to more than the post-apocalyptic spiritual vacuum, the loss of the old value system and thus of our reference point through the vast, artistically uncharted spaces and languages of the disintegrated post-Soviet empire, which even under stark repression produced – to the surprise of the often ignorant West – exceptional novels and poems, plays and essays, from Lviv to Bishkek, from Minsk to Yerevan. What the image of the ruins suggests is that the fall of the Iron Curtain should emancipate the profusion of cultures and languages which used to exist in this space, a profusion little known or, still more often, practically unknown to those of us living in a more Western East, let alone in the Central Eastern West, Western Central East or even Western Western East of Europe. The ruins called for archaeologists and literary historians. They also called for botanists and adventure hunters, for wild beast charmers, diplomats, zoologists and literature buffs. All these kept coming and discovering, piece by piece, the rich indigenous fauna and flora that had secretly sprouted from the ruins of a post-Soviet society. Nowhere was this process as transparent or the interest of the West as strong as in Ukraine. But interest by itself was not enough. It called for a young generation of authors who had set themselves a huge emancipation project: to put their literature on the world’s map while emphasising that this literature, no less than its counterpart written in Lisbon or Paris, Berlin or Vienna, belonged to a shared European tradition. The time was the 1990s. The Iron Curtain was gone, but despite the radical changes spreading through Europe there persisted – and, sadly, still persists – another iron curtain, a mental one, infinitely more invisible and perfidious, more neo-colonial and ignorant than its predecessor. To rip away this curtain, too, the writers from the other side had to tackle a colossal task. What was required was an intelligent and subversive gesture, one which would banish the stereotypes from the past while remaining deeply rooted in the unique literary tradition of those areas, nameless and – from the Western perspective at least – historyless.
On April 17, 1985, Yuri Andrukhovych and two of his fellow writers, Viktor Neborak and Sashko Irvanets, founded the legendary Ukrainian Bu-Ba-Bu literary performance group. The name, formed from the first syllables of the words Burlesk, Balahan, Bufonada – ‘burlesque, side-show, buffoonery’ – programmatically expressed the parodic, ironic, derisive nature of their texts and performances. In the repressive climate then prevailing in Ukraine, this was a daring, new, breakthrough act, which inspired a new generation of Ukrainian writers. Andrukhovych started out as a poet, publishing his first three books of poetry between 1985 and 1991. By a conscious withdrawal from formal regularity, by self-ironisation and by drawing on the Western, especially Beat tradition, Andrukhovych and his generation liberated Ukrainian poetry from staleness and a regularity ill-suited to the disharmonious times. His poems abound in meetings with unusual characters from the past and present. Ever discovering history gaps, popular music, or the state of Eastern Europe at a time of pivotal political events, he ironises his subject-matter and turns it upside down, thus planting the germs of a literary style which will be fully elaborated later in his parade disciplines, essays and prose. Three opening ballads in his first poetry collection, dating from the mid-1980s, are introduced by quotes – possibly fictional, possibly not – by a certain Iwan Krypyakevich, whose lost 19th century guidebook, Walks through Lemberg (today Lviv), notes: ‘Great impact was made in Lemberg by an actor who accidentally found coffins with dead bodies. When a church had been rebuilt into a theatre, the remains had been forgotten in the cellar.’ This is Andrukhovych as heir to Gogol and to decadent poetry, as anti-Rilkean admirer and translator of Rilke, Andrukhovych as chronicler of the perversions of history, the ironies of time, replacements and transmutations, degeneration and disintegration – torture chamber and angel, a church converted into a railway station, a river channelled under the surface of a thirsty town, a spirit initiated into decay, or prostitution and diet Coke. Andrukhovych’s world of poetry is open, contaminated with the contemporary and the past. The author gazes at the radical oppositions of his time, at opposites which attest to disintegration but reveal in this very disintegration a baroque treasure trove of paradox and grotesque. Blurring borders, these opposites establish an ironic sensibility which can stand up to society’s brutalities only as a hypnotically intoxicating innovation and a mocking witness. In this sense, Andrukhovych’s poems prefigure his entire oeuvre. They were soon followed by essays and later by novels, and it was only in the last decade that he turned back to poetry. However, he never stopped writing texts for various music ensembles, with whom he regularly collaborates not only as text writer but also as reciter and performer, such as the Polish punk band Karbido or the Swiss Kapeller–Zumthor duo.
The core of Andrukhovych’s literature is the East, more precisely Galicia, once the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today the west of Ukraine, the region which has contributed to the world’s literature such names as Paul Celan, Bruno Schultz or Josef Roth. Together with their cultural metropolis of many communities, many languages and therefore many names – Lemberg, Lviv, Lwów or Lvov – these localities formed a centre of European culture, but World War II and numerous pogroms left them culturally devastated, marginalised and forgotten. Andrukhovych is one who ever seeks to emancipate, to bring from the margins to the centre, to give a voice to the forgotten and seemingly erased ones – the dead, to resuscitate, and to warn that our present is often uncritically built on the past. This he achieves by strategies of the grotesque, irony, satire, by strategies of extremism and exaggeration, of carnival and lyric paraphrase. A professor of Ukrainian literature at the University of Columbia, Yuri Shevelyov, has dubbed the sources of Andrukhovych’s writing Ho-Hei-Ho – again a paraphrase, because these abbreviations stand in Ukrainian for Gogol, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich Heine.
Andrukhovych’s first novels, Recreations (Rekreaciyi, 1992) and The Moscoviad (Moskoviada, 1993), written during and after a traumatic Soviet Union army service and after studying at the Moscow Literature Institute, are derisive confrontations of the crumbling Soviet empire and its capital. The Moscoviad is an account by Otto von F., a literature student from a distant Western Ukrainian Soviet province, about young aspiring writers living in the dormitory of the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute. The future representatives of national literatures, soon to be established in the territory of the defunct Soviet empire, are portrayed with relentless humour and magic. The accounts range from a banquet with Olelko II, the Ukrainian king, to travelling by a special government underground railway through the Moscow sewers, where Russian secret services are training an army of rats. Andrukhovych records the conversations, associations and fictive events at a hallucinogenic speed. According to the critics, his writing approaches a state of contemplation and might even be ascribed to the influence of drugs, if it was not for the extraordinary precision of the images and speed of their sequences, the broad variety of styles as well as the carefully considered plots with no loose ends. His exaggeration is not an end in itself, no mere entertainment or baroque medley of flashes of wit: rather, it is a precisely and subtly orchestrated strategy of approaching the traumatic, unspeakable injuries dealt by history, and surviving. For all its fantastic features, it thus remains credible and laden with meanings. The figments of Andrukhovych’s prose do not stem from arbitrary imagination. As stated in Ingo Schulze’s speech at the bestowal of the prestigious Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung, exaggeration is always founded in reality rather than in fiction.
A grotesque poet figure is similarly foregrounded in Andrukhovych’s next novel, Perverzion (Perverziya, 1996). Stanislaw Perfetsky, a Ukrainian underground poet and performer travelling to Venice to participate in an international seminar on post-carnival absurdity, becomes entangled in demoniac intrigues, pursuit by secret services and compromising erotic situations. The hero of the novel, bursting with inspiring intellectual blasphemies, ironic descriptions, quotes, postmodernist digressions and allusions to the world’s literary classics, finally leaps through the window of a hotel by the Canal Grande – and disappears. Perverzion is often characterised as the apogee of postmodernism in Ukrainian literature. Seeing that its style in fact relies on elusiveness and genre fluidity, such labels may seem dubious today, but this enhances rather than lessens the significance of the work.
The monumental Twelve Circles (Dvanadcyat’ obruchiv, 2003) tells the story of an Austrian photographer with Galician roots, Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen, who travels repeatedly through Ukraine in the 1990s. Zumbrunnen finds the chaos of post-socialist Ukraine infinitely more appealing than the humdrum Western life. Falling in love with his interpreter, Roma Woronytsch, he accompanies her on an adventurous trip to the Carpathians. This – as it will turn out – last journey of the Austrian photographer, who ends up with his lady in the ‘Tavern On The Moon’, is a book saturated with dramatic irony and with scenes steeped in local folklore, grotesque attempts at re-Sovietisation, and returns to the Habsburg era. The novel is bursting at the seams with bizarre characters and their often blasphemous narratives, as well as with fireworks of language. Here an important role is assigned to a highly esteemed poet of the Ukrainian modernism, Bohdan-Ihor Antonych, a national literary authority referred to in many texts by Yuri Andrukhovych.
Twelve Circles is one of the highlights of Andrukhovych’s literary oeuvre, a highly complex, multilayered novel which splits the reading public in two factions: those who give up in the face of its overwhelming torrent of ideas and twists, and unconditional devotees. The protagonist’s death is followed by an imaginary description of his imaginary flight over Central Europe. And it is precisely the concept of Central, Central Eastern, Western Central, Where-the-Heart-Is Central Europe, that gains new momentum and new reflection with Andrukhovych’s works. There is no glorification of antiquated geopolitical concepts but a graphic detection of undefined fields. Here blend many notions of cultures, often contradictory, and expose, in the final analysis, a degree of arbitrariness in geopolitical labels. The latter often result in ignorance, unfamiliarity and unwillingness to face otherness or difference. In this sense Andrukhovych’s writing should be perceived as a highly committed process, with the goal of carving out an appropriate niche for Ukrainian literature and ensuring its full recognition as a constitutive part of the European cultural tradition.
Commitment, both cultural and political, finds expression in Andrukhovych’s journalism and essays. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Andrukhovych has been striving for a European perspective of Ukraine. An active former participant in many protests supporting the democratisation of Ukrainian society, he has explored in his book Euromaidan the bloody events in Kiev accompanying the fall of Yanukovych.
Yet Andrukhovych remains a thinker. His latest novel, Mystery (Tayemnycya, 2007), is a long interview conducted by a German journalist with a Ukrainian writer who is spending a year in Berlin on a scholarship. Where were you happy? Why did you cry when you played football? Which books would you care to learn by heart? For seven days, Egon Alt and Yuri Andrukhovych discuss forbidden music and deserted train stations, Andrukhovych’s childhood in the Western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk and his adolescent excesses in Lviv, military service in the Russian army and literary performances, the 1969 disaster when Dynamo Kiev lost against Spartak Moscow, and the moment when the coffin with Brezhnev’s body, and the dark part of history with it, crashed into the grave hole – the moment which presaged the end of the Soviet empire; the Orange Revolution and contemporary Ukraine and much more.
Andrukhovych went on to publish two more books, Fantomas Has Been Buried Here (Tut pokhovanyj Fantomas, 2015) preceded by the Lexicon of Intimate Cities (Leksykon intymnykh mist, 2011). The Lexicon of Intimate Cities continues the emphatically autobiographical, anecdotic style introduced in Mystery. The portrayal of 44 cities on three continents reveals scurrilous, amusing, largely history-stamped adventures and characters. The author’s autobiography serves to explore the fluid border between past and present, imagination and elaborated thought, the real and that which becomes real through literature. This process again brings together seemingly incompatible oppositions and remote places, characters, patterns, events. Andrukhovych’s writing is a bringing together of the impossible. His approach is not far from surrealism or at least the historical avant-gardes, but with a crucial difference: rather than for any automatism or escapism, Andrukhovych strives for precision, for keeping a steady eye on the huge abyss of history. Like a maelstrom, this abyss mixes scenes of woe and violence, personal biographies, human grotesques and follies, moments of happiness and moments of illumination: a huge dark maelstrom disappearing into a bottle, from which the hand of an invisible and unknown author pours a glass for Otto von F., Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen, Stanislaw Perfetsky and even one Yuri Andrukhovych (not our author but an imaginary, invented character from his novels who has merely adopted the author’s name, treacherously intent on luring us readers into a trap), to toast yet another apocalypse.
The essay Central Eastern Revision, mentioned at the beginning of this text, concludes with a quote which may well be quoted again on this occasion:
‘All that is left is the beginning of a poem by a foreign author. We should do something about it, flesh it out.
Free the future from the past?
Free the past from the future?
All that remains for me is to add something – before or after these lines.
Free us from ourselves?
Free me from myself?
Free man from his skeleton?’
The Vilenica Prize deservedly goes to Yuri Andrukhovych for his full-blooded, courageous and free-thinking literature, which restores voice to the seemingly and unjustly forgotten parts of Europe and thus restores to us, Central Europeans, our individual and shared past and future with a daring, humorous, intelligent and complex approach.
Translated by Nada Grošelj