Дванадцять обручів is a novel of the contemporary Ukraine, but Yuri Andrukhovych sets it largely in relatively isolated locales, concentrating on a few characters — allowing him to all the more effectively tie the past in with the present.
One of the central figures is an Austrian photographer, Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen. His name sounds straight out of the Habsburg Empire, and the Habsburg legacy in what once was Galicia and Lemberg (which became first Polish (post-WWI) then Ukrainian (post-WWII) Lvov/Lviv) and a nostalgia for aspects of those times suffuse the book. (Tellingly and realistically, however, Zumbrunnen winds up dead: he and what he represents weren’t made to endure in these times …..) Zumbrunnen becomes obsessed with newly-independent Ukraine, travelling there repeatedly throughout the 1990s, staying as long as he can. It’s an obsession that even costs him his relationship back home — but, despite his fascination with and immersion in the country, he doesn’t pick up more than a few words of the language (or Russian), remaining always the man behind the lens, rather than fully in the picture.
Most of the other central characters travel with Zumbrunnen by train and then helicopter to the same isolated place, ostensibly the centre of the continent, a one-time weather-station and observatory (and failed elite sports training centre), an ideal representation of past (and present) illusions called ‘On the Moon’ (and, in some respects, feeling very much as though it really were …). There’s Artur Pepa, a writer approaching forty who is growing dissatisfied with his marriage, his wife, Pani Roma — who is Zumbrunnen’s translator (and lover) –, and eighteen year-old step-daughter, Kolya, artsy Magierski who is to direct the video they’ve been assembled to make, and a professor specialising in Ukrainian poet Bohdan-Ihor Antonych (1909-1937, another blast from the past), as well as two young women. And there’s the sinister oligarch-type who brought them all together here.
Digressing to provide various backgrounds — as well as tell the story of the poet Antonych — the novel meanders about. Andrukhovych mines both Ukrainian history (general and literary) as well as his own material: early on he catches himself almost slipping off to Recreations (and Chortopil pops up here as well), while there are numerous references to Bu-Ba-Bu (the influential poetic group Andrukhovych was part of) and their doings.
The ‘twelve rings’ of the title — another Antonych-reference — also play a role, the professor egging on Kolya to recall them all by the end of their stay.
Дванадцять обручів is an interesting mix of the conventional and fantastical, both grounded and high-flying. The unexpected avenues Andrukhovych veers of into are often rewarding, but the central story — this group of people invited to this relatively isolated spot — occasionally feels underdeveloped even as he focusses on it.
Дванадцять обручів is also very much a Ukrainian novel, steeped in reference and allusion — an appealing aspect, but not always entirely accessible to the non-Ukrainian reader.
Worthwhile if occasionally frustrating.