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Yuri Andrukhovych: Московіада (The Moscoviad)

If you have read any of Andrukhovych’s other works, you will know what to expect: post-modernism, jokes and satire, going off at tangents, riffs on Ukrainian history, linguistic games, politics, sex. It is all here and wonderful fun.

Our hero is Otto Wilhelmovych von F., a Ukrainian poet. The book was written in 1993 but is set in 1991, the year the Soviet Union broke up, though it does not appear to have happened just yet. Otto is one of many writers who have been given a two year stipend to stay in a not particularly luxurious residence and work on their poetry and books. They come from all over the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The book is set over the period of just one day and we follow Otto’s day which, to a great extent, is a picaresque journey through Moscow.

He is not too enthusiastic about Moscow: The city of syphilis and hooligans, the favorite fairytale of armed hobos. The city of Bolshevik imperial architecture with the high-rise ghosts of people’s commissariats, secret entryways, forbidden alleys, the city of concentration camps, of fossilized giants aimed at the sky.

Otto is on the seventh floor and he has covered the wall of his room with Cossacks and Ukrainian heroes. Instead of working he is lying in bed cogitating. He thinks of his fellow writers who seem to him to be more like characters from books rather than authors. – Characters from potboilers baked according to the blandest recipes of the great realist tradition. As expected he mocks them and the other denizens of Moscow.

The King of Ukraine, Olelko the Second plays a role in this book and Otto will meet him and talk to him more than once, though it is not always plain sailing. They have supper together but Olelko is not impressed when our hero asks for money.

However, Otto starts his day with a shower. The showers are filthy, not helped by the presence of someone sleeping there. However, they are at least hot. He is alone, apart from the sleeper, and hears someone singing in the ladies’ shower room. He goes and joins her, a black lady, and they lather together and more. He and we later learn that she is from Madagascar.

Instead of breakfast he and three fellow writers – a Jew, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and a former prison educator go to a beer hall where you have to bring your own jars and get your beer from a vending machine. He makes a prediction: This empire will fall under the blows of the drunks. When all of them come out on Red Square and, demanding beer, go for the Kremlin. They will be fired at, but bullets will bounce off their alcohol-saturated, bulletproof chests.

During this discussion he speaks in favour of independence for Ukraine but points out that Moscow is the largest Ukrainian city, with a million Ukrainians in the city and, worryingly, they are becoming more like the Russians.

However, our hero is soon off on his journey. He has to meet a friend, Kyrylo, about publishing in Moscow a progressive Ukrainian newspaper with others. He phones Kyrylo several times, telling him he is on the way when we and he know he clearly is not. His journey, though relatively short in distance, is very colourful. The bus system in Moscow seems complicated and he sort of masters it.

His journey takes him to a place to eat, which ends in an explosion and to a girlfriend who keeps poisonous snakes, where he has a bath and a particularly poisonous snake considers joining him. He and his girlfriend have issues so she bites him (the girlfriend, not the snake). We get an account of his other girlfriends.

He heads to the children’s shop to get presents for friends’ children but the selection is decidedly limited. However he gets pickpocketed and, in chasing the thief, ends up in the bowels of Moscow. He had had a basty run-in with the KGB a few years back and now has another one, with giant rats, masked patriots and others involved.

As a good Ukrainian, he is no lover of Russia: around me is one great Asian, sorry, Eurasian plain, sorry, country, with its own rules and laws, and this country has a tendency to grow to the west, swallowing small nations, their languages, customs, beer, swallowing also larger nations, destroying their chapels and coffeehouses, and most importantly, quiet cozy bordellos on narrow cobblestone streets.

What my outline cannot convey is Andrukhovych’s humour, his continual asides, his general lack of responsibility, his accounts of a variety of topics and, of course, the huge quantity of alcohol our hero (nominally on the wagon) consumed during the day. The book is very funny, very post-modernist and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

First published 1993 by Suchasnistʹ
First published in English 2008 by Spuyten Duyvil
Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky