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Yuriy Vynnychuk: Танґо смерті (Tango of Death)

This book is told in alternating chapters. Chapters headed with a letter of the alphabet pre-war are set in World War II while those headed with a number are set in the contemporary era. Both are set for the most part in Lviv in Western Ukraine.

Not surprisingly we start with a Russian atrocity. In November 1921, fighting for Ukraine, the fathers of four of our main characters and three hundred and sixty others were defeated by the Russian force of Grigory Kotovsky, a professional bandit and vicious thug. All the prisoners were executed. The wives of four of the executed men met on on the tenth anniversary of the battle. They became friends as did their four sons, who are the protagonists of this part of the book.

They are Wolff Yeger, ethnically German, Jas (Jasko) Bilewicz, Polish, Yos (Yosko) Milker, Jewish and Orest (Orko) Barbaryka , Ukrainian and the narrator of this section. Yos is the only one still alive by the time of the second part

They all died for Ukraine, but what was Ukraine to them? No one had an answer to this question. For each of us, Bazar remained something mythical

Ukraine, as this book shows, is a mix of cultures and one of the many charms of this book is showing the cultural mix. Indeed, a good deal of the book is essentially painting a portrait of the various people of Lviv and their cultures, which intermix, with various sketches of individuals.

The second part, set in the present, features Myrko Yarosh and starts with a diatribe against marriage. Yarosh married and had a child soon after university. After we get married, we find ourselves in certain ordeals that rarely end happily, but instead more often in the parting of ways . Yarosh, his wife and child live with his in-laws and he hates it. He has no space for his studies (he teaches part-time while continuing his studies). Eventually, he just walks out, abandoning wife and child.

He is writing his dissertation about the literature of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Sumeria, Arcanum, and the Hittite Kingdom. The focus is on the fictitious one, Arcanum. He finds somewhere to stay but then his unmarried aunt dies and he inherits her house. Not only has she left a house but a huge store of food so he can survive by writing reviews and continue his studies. He has a brief fling with politics (which he soon abandons) and numerous, usually messy flings with various women. Vynnychuk gives us the full details.

Meanwhile we are following the stories of the four boys, then men from the first part. Three of them do well but our narrator, Orko, does not and we follow his drifting. Much of it is amusing and we get many interesting stories, showing the cross-cultural nature of Lviv. For example, Orka’s mother writes poems in three languages and gets help from Yos’ mother for Yiddish. These poems are used as epitaphs for the locals and she does well. Meanwhile Yos’ mother is communicating with the dead. The two recommend each other’s services and both make a decent living. Vynnychuk gently mocks the whole affair but is clearly interested in the cross-cultural aspect.

Yarosh has got a job as a lecturer and occasionally sees his son, Marko. More particularly, he is getting deeper into Arcanumian language and cuture. Arcanum had its own Book of the Dead, which was distinct from the Egyptian and Tibetan ones. The ancient Arcanumians believed that every person has two souls, one mortal and another immortal, the latter of which migrates to another person. Their secret was to perform songs from thr Book of the Dead just before the person died. These songs would facilitate the transition to the netherworld; what’s more they would not only facilitate it but would serve as a guide, to lead the immortal soul of the deceased through all the ordeals of the afterlife and to return back to life.

A dance was performed called Dan-go mrah, i.e. Tango of Death. I had always assumed tango was a Spanish word but, it seems, it came from Africa, specifically from the language of Ibibio Nigerian tribes and was brought over to the Americas by slaves. In this book it is argued that the Arcanumians went to what is now Nigeria and learned the word and the dance.

Lviv had been occupied by the Germans and, of course, they behave brutally towards the population, particularly the Jews and Vynnychuk describes this as well. There was a Jewish orchestra that played tunes, including one called The Tango of Death for those condemned to the firing squad. We soon learn that this is connected to the Arcanumian tango of death, via the Kabbala and Talmud and, later with Sufi conections. Yarosh learns this from one of the authors of the work. He is the now very old Yos, from the first part of the book. We also learn that the tango, in both cultures, is key to the transmigration of souls.

However Orko is still jumping from job to job and some of it is very funny. He finally lands up in a library though this is not any old library. His boss is over a hundred years old. He pokes around the library and finds not only old manuscripts, but spirits, strange people who seem to live in the library and books that have minds of their own. Vynnychuk keeps up the wit and literary references. Orko finds a manuscript on mirrors by de Selby. This is taken from Flann O’Brien‘s The Third Policeman. This is far from the only literary reference with real writers such as Borges and Andrey Kurkov and other Ukrainian writers making an appearance. Kurkov even plays a small but significant role in the plot.

The key manuscript that Yarosh is after was written by Lviv pharmacist Johann Kalkbrenner. It turns out that other people are after it and, indeed, well before Yarosh was born. Parts of it may be concealed in Orko’s library and he plunges into the bowels of the library to find it. More or less at the same time in the book though obviously not chronologically, Yarosh is looking for it in Turkey. However, meanwhile, Orko has become involved in a plot to assassinate a sadistic Polish police chief (Lviv was part of Poland before World War II). Yes, it is getting more and more complicated.

We know and some of the characters suspect that there is a war coming. It is September 1939 and the Germans invade from the West but as we know from another Ukrainian novel, trouble is more likely to come from the East. Lviv is invaded first by the Germans and the popultion holds out for ten days, far longer than many countries managed to hold out for but then they are ” liberated” by the Soviets from the East. As we also know from another Ukrainian novel, Soviet liberation is not something to welcome. Our four heroes try to resist the Soviets but the Soviets are brutal towards everyone while the Germans mainly limited their brutality towards the Jews and those who opposed them. However , while much of it is serious, Vynnychuk is happy to mock the Russians.

Yarosh is having his own troubles as the Ukrainian Secret Service takes an interest in his work and, once again, his love life gets messy. The story of the transmigration of souls takes on a greater role as it increasingly starts to appear in both stories.

This really is a superb book, covering various topics, from mockery of the Russians to a superb, colourful and often humorous portrait of Lviv, from a description of war and its incumbent horrors to a complex lost manuscript story which morphs into a story about the transmigration of souls. Joyce fans will be aware that this is a topic Joyce dealt with and given Vynnychuk’s numerous literary references in this book, I wonder if Joyce influenced him as regards this topic, While this book is not unknown in the English-speaking world, it perhaps did not gain the reputation it deserved as it was published by a small publisher, which has published other Ukrainian novels.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Folio
First published in English in 2019 by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing
Translated by Michael M. Naydan and Olha Tytarenko