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Yuri Andrukhovych: Рекреації (Recreations)

Khomsky is on his way to Chortopil (it means devil’s town), where he has been invited to the Festival of the Resurrecting Spirit. He has been travelling by train and at Lviv, a lot more people got on, also going to the festival. Even at this point, we can see that the novel is going to be somewhat anarchic, with a certain amount of rough and tumble on the train. Khomsky has never been to Chortopil before but the narrator, who speaks to the characters, tells Khomsky you once had to listen to an angry lecture from the lips of a certain patriotic woman poet about how Chortopil is our spiritual Mecca. Khomsky is the first of four poets we meet who are attending the festival but we learn that he is writing a novel. We later learn what the novel is about – or might be about, as Khomsky himself gives a summary of it when he is somewhat drunk. It involves planes, the Archduke Ferdinand, an earthquake which seems to destroy everything and a hitherto unknown underground country.

There is a four hour bus ride from the railway station to Chortopil and, on the bus, Khomsky meets his friend, the hope of Ukrainian poetry, Rostyslav Martofliak, who has come with his attractive wife, Marta. Indeed, even Khomsky, who is gay, finds her attractive. Marta soon bitterly regrets coming, leaving behind her two children with her parents, not least because of her husband’s behaviour. Among the many epithets she uses to describe her husband, Marta says of him leaning towards excess weight and alcoholism, drunkard, rogue, loving father, popular community activist, candidate for parliament, brilliant conversationalist, idolised by women of a certain age. She also knows how the event will turn out, describing it well in advance, as it will involve excessive drinking, prattling on till morning about some infernal rubbish, or about Ukraine, always the same thing, some sex and some poetry reading. She turns out to be totally accurate in her forecast.

We meet the next two poets – Hryts Shtundera and Yurko Nemyrych – as they are hitchhiking to Chortopil. A car stops and they are picked up by Dr Popel, a Ukrainian expatriate living in Switzerland. He is mildly mocked for being somewhat out of touch with modern Ukraine but seems to have everything to hand, whenever they ask for something, such as food, drink, cigarettes and even condoms. He was originally from Chortopil but has not been back for many years. Our four poets all converge on Chortopil, accompanied by Bilynkevych, allegedly a member of the organising committee who met Khomsky. The four poets soon become suspicious of him and deduce that he is a KGB agent but are happy to have him pay for the food and drink and for him to show them around the secret places of Chortopil.

Once they get to Chortopil, they start with priorities. Bilynkevych gives them a programme, which involves dancing, religious ceremonies, a masquerade, a screening of Emmanuelle IV(!) and poetry readings. These are, in fact, what are called in Ukrainian, recreations, dramatic and poetical performances originally devised by students in Kiev in the eighteenth century. Bilynkevych offers to take them to the hotel, where there are rooms waiting for them. However, they have their priorities – beer. Events follow as Marta has predicted. However, Hryts Shtundera goes and visits the village where he once lived, which has almost completely been destroyed and illustrates one of the dark episodes of Ukrainian history – the post-war mass deportation of over half a million Ukrainians to what is now Kazakhstan and other Soviet territories.

We follow only the first day of the festival with a strange hotel, various festivities, drunken brawls, sex, poetry and various other activities, all presided by the somewhat mysterious head of the organising committee, Pavlo Matsapura, whom we only meet right at the very end. This book is great fun. Of course, it mocks many things, including, in particular, poets and other writers (Andrukhovych himself is even mentioned and plagiarised by Khomsky) but also expatriates, the KGB, bureaucrats and Ukraine and its politics. It was well-received in post-Soviet Ukraine, though its mockery of Ukrainian value and its focus on sex, profanity and drunkenness did not endear it to everyone. For us, however, it is still very readable and enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Chas
First published in English 1997 by The Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press