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Московіада by Yuri Andrukhovych

Московіада is set during the time of the collapsing Soviet Union, the central character, Otto von F. — like Andrukhovych himself in those years — a Ukrainian poet who is a student at the (in)famous Gorki Institute, the Soviet answer to the creative writing MFA-programme. It begins with an amusing run-down of Soviet writing-school life, particularly in the dorms where Otto lives. From all corners of the Soviet Union, there’s quite a cast of characters — and writing is often the last thing on their minds. (Writing is on Otto’s mind, but he’s painfully blocked here, Moscow seemingly have driven the Ukrainian muse right out of him.)

Otto notes that Moscow is considered the largest Ukrainian city, with a million Ukrainians living here, but he’s still somewhat out of his element here. Hard drinking is one way to come to grips with everything, but even vodka seems in short supply (or is at least hard to get one’s hands on) in these tumultuous times. Both the alcohol and the general irreality of life in the city (and the city itself) contribute to an almost hallucinogenic feeling to much of what he experiences, culminating in a maze-like netherworld that is the province of officialdom he eventually finds himself trapped in.

Moscow is not a melting pot, but rather over-boiling cauldron. Many of the other writing-students Otto lives with also come from the most exotic parts of the crumbling Soviet Union, with talents (or not) who write in obscure languages carefully fostered — but many see their presence in Moscow only as an opportunity to become large-scale traders, import-export men travelling back and forth between their home-states and the city of opportunity. Otto’s ambitions are literary, but neither the dorms nor the Institute nor Moscow are conducive to his writing.

Several traumatic events also have their effect, from the accident one fellow student has while making an alcohol-run from the seventh floor to earlier attempts, after the publication of his first book, by the authorities to blackmail Otto into collaborating with them. The official recruitment-attempt is fairly effective, but it’s part of a state apparatus that is — though still seemingly omnipresent — already tending towards collapse. When Otto’s wallet is stolen (along with his plane ticket back to Ukraine) he chases the thief and finds himself in the bowels of Moscow, a surreal other-world that mirrors the general loss of control the authorities have (that rat-project has gotten completely out of hand, for example).

The spectacular conclusion allows Andrukhovych to have it both ways, Moscow state control forcing Otto to the most desperate act, which acts also as release and allows him (some) return to the motherland. It’s the ultimate indictment of the Soviet system, a very direct (and memorably narrated) charge of what it did — if perhaps not as obviously — to almost everyone.

Many of the usual Andrukhovych-touches can be found in Московіада, from the playful literary references (including to the poet Andrukhovych, and his Bu-Ba-Bu colleagues) to the surreal feel and carnival atmosphere (including a masked-ball-like scene). Written (generally except for the dream-passages) in the second person to fairly good effect, it also shows his usual creative flair (which only threatens to get out of hand a few times). And while much of the humour tends towards the absurd, there are some nice simpler touches too (including the student who ‘only learnt French so that she might be able to read War and Peace in the original’).

Московіада is a novel of a particular historical moment, and is obviously not as readily accessible to Western readers as to a (former) Soviet audience. Nevertheless, it’s bright and creative enough to impress even without full comprehension of all the references, and makes for an enjoyable read. Moscow has, meanwhile, become yet another city, but this picture is surely among the best of it at that specific time.


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