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Yuri Andrukhovych: Перверзія (Perverzion)

If you have read Рекреації (Recreations), you know, reading this novel, to expect an anarchic, chaotic, post-modern romp, full of linguistic games , with comments on literature (world-wide as well as Ukrainian) and on politics and this is just what you get. It must have been a nightmare to translate and Michael Naydan, the translator, gives us a hefty dose of footnotes, explaining his decisions, some of which, frankly, look decidedly odd. This is definitely one of those books where you do need to read it in the original to fully appreciate it but, as most of us do not read Ukrainian, we must struggle through with Haydan’s translation and footnotes.

The story essentially concerns what is probably the last week in the life of Stakh (Stanislav) Perfetsky, poet, dandy, trickster, performer, traveller and, of course, lover. He is originally from Chortopil, which we visited in Рекреації (Recreations) and which means devil’s town.He had been attending a conference in Venice called The Postcarnival Absurdity of the World:What is on the Horizon? Why? It is not quite clear. He had received an invitation from Amerigo Dappertutto (dappertutto means everywhere in Italian – one of the problems for the translator of this book is that he needs to know both Ukrainian and Italian), Technical Secretary of the La morte in Venezia (i.e. Death in Venice) Foundation. (We later learn that Dappertutto translated it himself into Ukrainian using only an Italian-Ukrainian dictionary.) What we do know is that Stakh arrived in Venice by a roundabout route, attended the conference and, apparently, either jumped or was thrown/pushed out of his hotel window into the canal. However, no body was found. The author of this book has since amassed a host of documents, many given to him via a mysterious package, relating to the last days of Stakh’s life. These documents include material written by by Stakh himself as well as various other documents, including reports by various spies to a Monsignore, who may or may not be the devil. The author has put these documents together to try and make a coherent and chronological story. It is not, of course, in any way coherent by any standards.

We learn about Stakh’s early life from a newspaper report by Bilynkevych, whom we have met in Рекреації (Recreations) as the KGB agent at the conference. We then learn about Stakh’s roundabout journey from Lviv to Venice. The last part was in a car driven by the urologist Dr. Riesenbock, accompanied by his wife, Ada Kitrone (which is not her name but Naydan’s attempt at translating her Ukrainian name.) Ada is to act as his interpreter at the conference (which gives Andrukhovych lots of excuses to mock the interpretation). It is a colourful journey, as narrated by Stakh, including the police finding him unconscious beneath the Kennedy Bridge outside Vienna. However, thanks to Ada and her husband, he does, finally, make it to Venice. We later learn that Ada’s family originally came from Chortopil.

The conference naturally gives Andrukhovych free rein to mock all and sundry. There is the Incorporated States of America participant, Mrs Shalizer, who is patronising but who is eager to get Stakh into bed, the Frenchman called Mr Dejavu and Alborak Djabrai who rode on horseback from Sweden to the conference. While Stakh does givea talk at the conference, which is a rather unconventional view of Ukrainian history and literature, much of his time is spent in either getting drunk, visiting Venice, and sex. He has fallen in love with Ada but that does not seem to prevent him from having sex with various other women (though not Mrs Shalizir). Ada, who is spying on him, seems to encourage him but not too much. We get a variety of reports from the conference but one consists of two columns. The left column is a speech by Mrs Shalizir (who we now know as Liza Sheila) who weighs against what she calls (at least in the English translation) Mr. Ph, i.e. the phallus. In the right column we read what else is going on while she is giving her speech. Initially it is billets doux between Stakh and Ada but then it is the increasing opposition to Mrs. S’s speech, ending in all sorts of things being thrown in her direction, first books, then ashtrays, spittoons, bronze statuettes and candle-holders.

As well as reports on the conference from various sources we get reports on Stakh’s increasingly erratic behaviour. He visits a priest and tells him that he has broken all the Ten Commandments except one, the Fifth (Thou Shalt Not Kill) but he is about to break that one as he is in a situation where it is kill or be killed. We see him as Orpheus in an opera buffa. There is even an interview with him for a Venice newspaper though Ada says the journalist is only interviewing him so that she can sleep with him. He even leaves a detailed will, clearly expecting to die. In short, the theme of death is ubiquitous. Of course, we know or, rather, we think we know that he has died from the beginning. Was he pushed? Did he jump? Or did he, in fact, not die at all but simply disappear? Inevitably, Andrukhovych does not give us a conventional ending.

If you like post-modern chaos, anarchy, language games, lists, mockery and sheer playfulness, you cannot help but like this book. I enjoyed it very much as it showed wonderful inventiveness and creativity and that Andrukhovych knows how to play, how to tease, how to mock and, above all, how to write very well indeed.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Vyd-vo”Lileia-NV”
First published in English 2005 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Michael M Naydan