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Lyubko Deresh: Культ [Cult]

Deresh was barely eighteen when he published this novel and while it is clearly a young man’s novel, it is not an uninteresting one and has had considerable success, both in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Our hero is Yurko Banzai. He is from Lviv and has studied to become a biology teacher. His life in Lviv has not been without its problems. On three occasions he was rushed to hospital because of drug use (magic mushrooms). His romantic life has not fared well as the woman he fell for ran off with his best friend, known as Rain.

He has fallen out with his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. He chose to become a biology teacher and has done well so has been sent to a remote college to teach biology in a town called Midni Bouky (=copper beech). This immediately reminded me of Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko‘s Vita Nostra (Vita Nostra) where the heroine is also sent off to a remote college. The books are very different but, in both cases, the college is remote and…strange.

Despite his drug habit, Yurko is a fairly low key young man. His predecessor at the college was an alcoholic and hypersexual but, apart from the drugs, Yurko does not have too many bad habits. Even his musical tastes do not seem outrageous (Van der Graaf Generator!). However the director, Andriy Yaroslavovych Weissgott tells him he was hired because of his non-traditional approach. Pan Andriy, as he is known, seems more interested in getting the school nurse into bed than running the school and, indeed, has a history of putting his sexual needs before the needs of the school. He is, of course, married.

Indeed, the other teachers seem more peculiar thanYurko, such as Derzhyslava who has a huge collection of postcards and a cat, she alleges, that is able to talk and the self-important writer Vitayl. However it is the students who are more interesting. There is Irinya, known as Miss Piggy, though she is apparently very attractive and full-figured. She tries to start a relationship with Yurko but his heart is elsewhere. The somewhat shy and interestingly named Dartsia Borges who has read all of Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut, is far more appealing to Yurko, not least because she is far less aggressive than some of other girls such as Miss Piggy. Yurko is hesitant to start a relationship with her, considering himself a paedophile for being attracted to her and worried that others will also consider him a paedophile. Nevertheless the relationship between the two is key to the book.

Like others of his generation, Yurko is into unconventional science. He has read the work of Patricia Garfield on dreams and is determined to learn how to control his dreams so that he can dream of Dartsia to order.

He does start teaching and even offers voluntary classes The first one is on sperm and he warns the students that if you get sperm in your eye, it can blind you. (No, nor did I.) His classes are often attended by more women than men.

However the mutual and possibly paedophiliac relationship between Yurko and Dartsia grows though, before sex, come the drugs. Not surprisingly, they freak out. We have already met the strange Koriy. He is nominally the doorman but it seems he has a library of rare books hidden in the basement. Yurko now meets him on one of his drug trips and Koriy will start to play a bigger role. More particularly we are now going to full H. P. Lovecraft, with the Cthulhu Mythos to the fore. Lovecraft is, of course, a favourite of many young people with his weird tales.

Hpwever, it is not just in his trips that things become strange. People start saying that they feel there is something wrong. A large amount of owls appear and make strange noises. There is a flu and measles epidemic. Three female students disappear. There is a large increase in the number of stray cats and dogs.

While all this is going on there is open opposition between two groups of students, what are known as the conformists and non-conformists, a dichotomy you can see in colleges and universities all over the world. This is partially expressed in their different musical tastes and Yurko, who seems to be becoming more and more rebellious, forms a group channelling Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Grieg.

But the epidemic is getting worse, Yurko and Dartsia’s dreams are getting weirder and they are finding it difficult to distinguish between dream and reality, Koriy is playing a larger and more mysterious role and the Lovecraftian pantheon is coming out in full force, particularly when our heroes go down into the extensive cellars beneath the building, where Koriy hangs out.

There is no doubt this is a young man’s novel which is doubtless why many young men have taken to it. Not being a young man and never having got into Lovecraft (or Van der Graf Generator) I quite enjoyed it but could not wholeheartedly recommend it. Given that it has not been translated into English though,as you can see below, it has been translated into other West European languages, it obviously does not have much of a reputation in the English-speaking world and I cannot see that changing.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by Kalvariya
No English translation
First published in French in 2009 by Stock as Culte
Translated by Oksana Mizerak
First published in German in 2005 by Suhrkamp as Kult
Translated by Juri Durkot and Sabine Stöhr
First published in Italian in 2007 by LAINYA-Fazi Editore as Kult