In the socio-cultural milieu of his native Ukraine, Yuri Andrukhovych has achieved the kind of status that demands that his name be followed by “himself” every time it shows up in print. His previous novels Recreations and Moscoviad are two important reasons for this recognition, and Twelve Loops is yet another work that assert Andrukhovych’s authority – and talent – as Ukraine’s national mythmaker.
Twelve Loops features some familiar topography: readers will recall Chrotopil’, the setting of Recreations, and, of course, L’viv, the city at the center of Andrukhovych’s fictional universe. In Twelve Loops L’viv attracts two artists, the Austrian photographer Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen and, sixty years earlier, the Lemko poet Bohdan-Igor Antonych, with lethal and inexplicable magnetism.
Yes, Lviv – the city of police brass orchestras, provincial community meetings, public coffee-houses and coop tearooms, the city with an enormous jail right on the main street, very near the poet’s licentious dwelling . It is not difficult to distinguish in this city two main segments appealing to Antonych.
The first is the L’viv subterranean, buried and flooded, with dead-ended tunnels and corridors, secret half-covered labyrinths and a walled-in river against whose shores herds of blinded fish rub fitfully, pushing from underneath at buildings and cracking the city’s dinted asphalt shell.
The second is the proletarian L’viv, perhaps even the lumpen L’viv, all those terribly lit and impassable spring-autumn suburbs with all manner of mines, tanneries, refineries and breweries, with ubiquitous dirty street markets and vendor carts and limousines, fallen apart and swallowed forever by the street mud…
When Zumbrunnen comes to Ukraine at the end of the century, this L’viv – and Antonych – are only memories, but memories, echoes, reflections, things bygone are, in Andukhovych’s fiction, omniscient, stamped onto the characters’ souls and woven into their dreams. Zumbrunnen himself is not merely a foreign photographer who, with the Westerner’s other-worldly sharp and somewhat misguided judgement, observes Ukraine’s transition from the post-Soviet chaos into post-chaotic inertia. He is also a descendant of a forgotten Austro-Hungarian imperial forester who managed the Carpathian woods a few generations ago. He is also, in the grand scheme of the novel, a man with the power to fulfill a prophecy for an exiled Gypsy king. Both facts – the distant stirring of the ancestor’s genes and the words of a prophecy about someone he’s never met – have very real bearing on Zumbrunnen’s fate, because Andrukhovych’s world is old, layered, and infinitely connected.
How this connectedness is revealed to us, how casually we overlook it, and what price we might have to pay for our ignorance are all themes of this novel. Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen develops an affair with his Ukrainian interpreter, Roma Voronych, whose husband, the writer Arthur Pepa, is going through a midlife crisis. All three are invited by a mysterious benefactor to attend a conference at an inn high in the mountains. Roma’s eighteen-year-old daughter, a professor of literature, a fashionable clip-maker, and two strippers, contracted by the same benefactor, also come. Once this group is delivered to the isolated mountain-top inn, whose own walls are swathed in mysterious and tragic history, it is only natural that super-natural things should begin to happen. For instance, Roma’s long-dead first husband comes to claim her body.
It is to the author’s great credit that the reader follows effortlessly as the characters shuffle and stumble between their habitual reality and the magical world that spills out of their dreams and drunken hallucinations. When is Zumbrunnen closer to the truth, we are asked – when he writes to his friends in Austria that “there is nothing sweeter than the sense of gradually inhabiting the Other. One day it occurs to you that indeed, without exagerration, you could live here. And there is nothing impossible, if the next day you want to be and live only here,” or when he realizes that “it was horror… to sit in this oscillating dark pit, in this overfried grinding mixture of smells, among these strange people, to listen to them howl along with the tape-player”? When he camps and swims in green heated-through mountain rivers or when he dreams he is one those blind fish locked under the Opera Theater in L’viv? Or both?
Of course Twelve Loops is a telling of myth. The reader will have both the pleasure of wonder and the pleasure of recognition for myths are universal and this one is no exception.
Twelve Loops by Yuri Andrukhovych
Kyiv: Krytyka, 2004.